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EPA seeks report from Waterford council over use of bleach to 'disinfect' rivers since 1980s

It comes following outcry over the use of the chemical near popular beaches in the county.

The bay in Dunmore East
The bay in Dunmore East

THE ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION Agency has sought a report from Waterford City and County Council over its use of chlorine to disinfect streams near some of its most popular beaches.

Its request to the local authority was made following outcry over use of the bleach in Dunmore East and Tramore, with the agency telling The Journal that it is “not aware of this practice taking place” in other council areas.

The request comes as it has emerged that the local authority’s use of sodium hypochlorite dates back to the 1980s – far longer than previously thought.

It has been met by fierce criticism from international NGO Coast Watch and a local Green Party councillor, who has moved a motion seeking for the local authority to halt its use of the chemical.

The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage has also weighed in, stating that local authorities need to not only carefully manage water bodies, but also identify and address pollution in its rivers.

Coast Watch Ireland’s coordinator, Karin Dubsky, said it is critical that the council “immediately” cease using sodium hypochlorite, ahead of its 15 September end date.

Dubsky said “it’s simply not good enough” to continue its use, partly as male eels begin migrating upriver at this time of year who, she alleged, would be endangered if they come into contact with the bleach.

Its use was first queried by the NGO and it contacted Waterford Council and the EPA on the use of sodium hypochlorite earlier this month.

The EPA has now told this publication that it has asked the council whether it is carrying out the practice at other locations, adding that it is not aware of sodium hypochlorite being used in a similar manner for streams as in Waterford.

A spokeswoman said: “A report was requested from Waterford City and County Council on this matter on Friday 26 August, and we are awaiting a response.

“As part of this, we have asked whether this practice is being carried out at other locations in Waterford.

“We are not aware of this practice taking place in other local authority areas.”

Latest query

It is the latest state agency to query Waterford Council’s use of the chemical, following similar action by Inland Fisheries Ireland – the agency responsible for rivers, lakes and other inland natural water bodies – which said it was concerned and investigating the matter.

Last week, The Journal reported on the contrasting positions held by local councils over using sodium hypochlorite for water bodies.

While Waterford City and County Council explained it uses it on streams in the summer bathing season, “primarily because children tend to play” in the streams, so it can attempt to sanitise the water, Cork City Council said it avoids deploying the bleach as it is “toxic” for aquatic life.

Another, Wexford County Council, said to use bleach would be “environmentally unsound” as it could “destroy habitats”.

Waterford Council has continued to stand over its use of the bleach.

It has also maintained its stance that the process is “unlikely to affect the flora and fauna in the bay”, despite the positions of Coast Watch and other local authorities.

Responding to queries from The Journal regarding when it began using the chemical on the streams in Dunmore East, having previously said it was in use for a “number of years”, the council said its use dates back to 1988.

“The chlorination commenced around 1988 following several cases of serious illness arising from children ingesting the water at the stream including one near fatal incident involving a small child in the summer of 1988,” a spokeswoman said.

The council said there is a “substantial dilution” of the sodium hypochlorite, which is dripped at intervals into the stream, claiming that the “very movement of the stream drives off the free chlorine generated, as well as it combining with and killing bacteria in the water” in the stream.

“The levels of free chlorine at the outfall are very low and well less than might be found in a swimming pool,” the council spokeswoman said. “There is no danger to human health associated with the levels present at the outfall.”

‘Vague’

Councillor Jody Power, who is bringing a motion to the council’s September meeting of the Metropolitan District calling for the chemical’s use to cease, said the council’s stance that the bleaching was “unlikely to affect” flora and fauna was “vague” and needed clarification.

He said the council needs to answer whether it has “instigated any report” into the environmental impact of the bleach, including a Natura Impact Statement, which is typically prepared to examine whether a project may harm the integrity of a site during a development.

Power, who is also a marine engineering lecturer, said: “Are we saying that in 30-odd years that they have not been able to address the cause of the pollution? I really believe a report needs to be instigated immediately on this looking at it from a health perspective and an environmental perspective.”

Dubsky said the council needed to explain why it had not identified potential sources of pollution since beginning its use.

The marine ecologist added: “There is another way of approaching this. The council can involve the landowners and the public in cleanups and deal with the source of the pollution that way – local authorities can’t just off go on these things outside of the community.

“In Dunmore East you have a super community and there’s nothing to prevent that stream becoming good quality if everyone worked together.”

She said there was a need for the EU’s Water Framework Directive to contain measures on the management of streams in its River Basin Management Plan.

Coast Watch Ireland also wants to see the drafting of a national chlorine plan for local authorities setting out the clear use of the chemical.

Dubsky agreed with Power’s call for clarification on a Natura statement, adding that at the “absolute minimum” the council should conduct a screening assessment on whether habitats and their species have faced any harm from the use of the bleach.

“It could potentially have an impact on otters, but also on eels as their migratory period overlaps with the use of bleach during bathing season.”

When contacted, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage said it was aware that the EPA is now examining the concerns raised by Coastwatch Ireland.

The department also said that under bathing water legislation, councils “should focus on carefully managing” the catchment upstream of the bathing water, and on “identifying causes of pollution” that might affect bathing waters and impair bathers’ health.

It added adequate measures should be taken to prevent, reduce or eliminate the causes of pollution.

“The Bathing Water Regulations 2008 ensure that our bathing waters are well managed and appropriately protected.

“These regulations require all local authorities to identify bathing waters where large numbers of people bathe; to monitoring these bathing waters; and carry out appropriate management measures when and where necessary.”

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