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Waterford council to review use of chlorine to 'disinfect' rivers amid concerns about environmental impact

Major concern was raised after it emerged the council was dosing streams near popular beaches.

Dunmore East
Dunmore East
Image: Sue Burton Photography/Shutterstock

WATERFORD CITY AND County Council has said it will review its use of chlorine as a ‘disinfectant’ on streams near some of its popular beaches, following outcry over the practice.

It has also claimed that it has not carried out any environmental assessments of the use of bleach, because it is taking place outside of the Waterford Estuary’s special conservation area (SAC) and therefore “would not pose significant effects” on wildlife.

The council’s use of sodium hypochlorite – a bleaching chemical – on streams was met with fierce criticism by environmental activists following reporting on The Journal last week.

It has been told to submit a report on its use by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which said on Monday that it was not aware of any other local councils who use chlorine in the same manner as Waterford Council.

The chemical has been used during the summer bathing season at two locations in Dunmore East and at another in Tramore.

This practice dates back to 1988, according to the council.

The council has now confirmed that it has not carried out any environmental impact assessments of the impact of the chlorine.

However, it has remained firm that its use of the bleach is within the law and does not breach the Water Pollution Act, as claimed by NGO Coast Watch Ireland.

It said the dosing takes place during bathing season lasting from June to September between 6.00am and 10.00pm “in levels deemed safe for food processing and household use”, adding that “Milton baby bottles washing solutions contain 2% sodium hypochlorite” in their makeup.

It said the practice is in place “primarily to protect the public health”, as children “tend to play” in the Dunmore East streams in particular.

The council has been unable to identify the source of pollution that led to it bleaching the stream, and is unsure whether it is due to agricultural runoff or a “poorly operated” wastewater system.

Coast Watch, which initially raised concerns about the chlorination, said it is now taking legal advice on the use of bleach in the streams.

“It has to be clarified and can’t be left as is. They [the council] obviously think it’s legal, otherwise they wouldn’t be doing it,” the group’s Ireland coordinator Karin Dubsky said.

Dubsky alleged that following a visit to the site in Dunmore East this week, she found the stream “running with loads of [insect and aquatic] life until you hit where the bleach starts – and then below that you see nothing”.

Environmental assessments

A spokeswoman for the local authority confirmed it has not carried out any specialised assessments examining the impact of the chlorine.

It reasons there has been no requirement to carry out work such as an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), because the boundary of the Waterford Estuary special conservation area is approximately 4km north of the chlorination area in Dunmore East.

The spokeswoman added: “Thus due to distance and dilution factor the chlorination of the stream would not pose significant effects on the qualifying interests” of the Estuary SAC, meaning that an assessment such as a Natura Impact Statement is also not required.

Asked this week whether it was satisfied that the bleaching would not affect eels who are migrating upriver at this time of year, the council did not respond.

While other local authorities have told this publication that they avoid using sodium hypochlorite for “any reason”, as it could “destroy habitats”, Waterford Council said it has been unable to conduct a screening assessing the impact of the bleaching on its local habitats, due to “the fact that the area downstream of the chlorination is largely culverted”, that is, a tunnel-type structure carrying the stream beneath the ground.

The spokeswoman said it has also based its stance around the ecological status for Dunmore East remaining the same since its last assessment by the EPA in 2001.

She added: “A review of the current practice will be undertaken following the cessation of the current bathing season, in consultation with all stakeholders.  This review will be concluded prior to the commencement of the 2023 bathing season.”

The use of chlorine has been queried by two state bodies for water quality – the EPA and Inland Fisheries Ireland – and will be the subject of a motion calling for its scrapping at a meeting of the local authority’s elected members later this month.

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