Through a glass darkly: Ireland’s lingering water quality issues

Published by Dan Connell on

October 25th, 2017

The latest Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report on Urban Waste Water Treatment in 2016 (UWWT) published this week makes for sombre reading, with many of its findings hard to digest.

Not only did investigations reveal that waste-water treatment facilities in 50 of Ireland’s 185 large towns and cities remain uncompliant with EU standards, but in addition, the report states that raw sewage is still entering the environment – untreated – at 44 urban locations across Ireland.

More alarmingly, the environmental watchdog also warned that of those 44 areas, 31 are likely to continue discharging raw sewage into our waterways well into 2021 owing to “continued delays in scheduled infrastructure improvements”.

Urban waste water is the second most common pollution pressure in Ireland after agriculture, and is a contributing factor to over one-fifth (22 per cent) of the water bodies that are at currently at risk.

The report identifies 148 areas across Ireland where improvements are needed to address waste water, and highlights the need for significant funding to address the legacy of underinvestment in infrastructure needed to collect and treat our waste water effectively.

During 2016, the EPA carried out detailed assessments of Ireland’s 46 water catchments – comprised of over 4,800 individual water bodies – and identified those at risk of not meeting their environmental objectives.

In terms of key pollution pressures, waste water from 59 areas was identified as the sole threat to some of the water bodies currently not meeting environmental objectives required by the EU’s Water Framework Directive.

Non-compliance Issues

Irish Water’s treatment plants produced 56,018 tonnes of sewage sludge in 2016. In Ireland, more than one billion litres of waste water is collected every day in approximately 30,000kms of sewers. This is treated at 1,100 waste water treatment plants and then discharged into rivers, lakes, and coastal waters.

However, sewage from the equivalent of 120,000 people is still entering our environment untreated each day across the 44 areas identified in the UWWT 2016 report.

The report found that there are still long delays in building many of the treatment plants needed to eliminate discharges of untreated waste water across Ireland’s 185 urban areas.

The 21 areas that were non-compliant with the more stringent treatment requirements account for 84 per cent of the waste water load collected in all 41 areas subject to these requirements.

Infrastructure Delays

Last year, the UWWT 2015 report highlighted 43 areas discharging raw sewage. Two areas that were discharging raw sewage in 2015 have now been connected to new treatment plants. These are Kinvara in Galway and St Johnstone in Donegal.

Yet, three areas which Irish Water previously misreported as receiving primary treatment were found to be discharging raw sewage in 2016. These are Glin and Foynes in Limerick and Newport in Mayo.

Some improvements were achieved in 2016, including the commissioning of new treatment plants at Carrigtwohill, County Cork and Kilmacthomas, County Waterford, and major upgrades to increase the capacity of the treatment plants serving Courtown – Gorey in County Wexford and Galway City.

Less than half of improvement works due between 2009 and 2016 were reported as complete at the end of 2016, and works to eliminate discharges of raw sewage from 16 areas have now been delayed by over three years.

The EPA has identified 269 ‘recurring discharge incidences’ at waste water works that the agency says “do not comply with the requirements of a waste water discharge licence” and/or “carry the potential for environmental contamination, in some cases requiring an emergency response”.

The underlaying causes for these incidences are identified in the UWWT 2016 report as a combination of lack of sufficient treatment capacity, operation and management of treatment plants, the expanse and integrity of current waste water collection systems, and ‘miscellaneous issues’, such as adverse weather conditions.

The EPA states that these ongoing ‘long term’ issues are likely to linger on until underlying infrastructure issues are resolved.

The Four Courts Building Photo: Gary Barber


The report states that the current pace of improvements to waste water treatment infrastructure “falls far short of EPA requirements” and in response to the delays in carrying out essential works, the EPA has started legal action against Irish Water for continuing to discharge untreated waste water into the environment.

The EPA initiated five prosecutions against Irish Water in 2016 for not completing the infrastructural works needed to improve discharges into rivers from three priority areas, and for breaches of waste water discharge authorisations.

The prosecutions concluded in 2017 and Irish Water was convicted in each case. The EPA has since initiated prosecutions in relation to a further seven urban areas by mid-October 2017.

Legacy of underinvestment

The European Union (EU) Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive sets standards for the collection, treatment, and discharge of urban waste water from large urban areas.

Meeting the standards in the Directive is a key step in protecting our environment from the adverse effects of waste water discharges. The EU is taking Ireland to the Court of Justice of the European Union because of the ongoing failure to ensure that waste water is adequately collected and treated.

Capital expenditure on waste water treatment infrastructure in 2016 was €172m, nearly €100m less than the average spent each year between 2000 and 2011.

In comments made to the media following the publication of the UWWT 2016 report, Irish Water estimated it would cost in excess of €13bn and “require large-scale investment over a sustained period” to rectify the particular issues outlined in the EPA’s report.

Seán Laffey, Irish Water’s head of asset management, told reporters that when Irish Water took over responsibility for water and waste water in 2014 it “prioritised the health of our customers by focusing on improving drinking water”.

According to Laffey, Irish Water is ramping up investment to spend an average of €326m per year on waste-water infrastructure, although he stated that, “this is only possible by bringing a large number of projects through a complex planning process, while optimising value for money.”

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Dan Connell

Daniel is a journalist and contributor to Green News, whose focus is on marine conservation and environmental issues. He holds a BSc (Hons) in Marine Science from NUI Galway.