Thursday, 8 October 1992
Seanad Éireann Debate
Mr. Ross: I bring this motion on the Adjournment before the House because Mount Usher Gardens, Ashford, County Wicklow, are in danger of closure. I do not think that could have escaped anybody's notice in the last month. During the summer months the press publicised the danger to Mount Usher, one of the prime tourist attractions of County Wicklow and of Ireland. It is a great irony that the foremost garden in the garden county is now threatened by practices which are hostile to the environment. It will be a bad day for Ashford, Wicklow, and for Ireland if Mount Usher has to close.
There are two features threatening Mount Usher of which the Minister will be well aware. One is the threat to the Vartry river and the second is the threat from an adjacent sewage treatment plant. It is incredible that any county council could have placed a sewage treatment plant beside one of the prime tourist attractions in its county, yet this is what happened. Wicklow County Council  placed a sewage treatment plant to deal with Ashford sewage beside Mount Usher many years ago. That sewage plant is now overloaded and foul odours are emanating from it having a dreadful effect on visitors to Mount Usher. Many visitors have complained.
It is obvious that no owner would have gone public on an issue like this unless she or he was absolutely desperate. To some extent going public is self-defeating because it is telling the world about the dangers, the difficulties or the lack of attractions of this spot in Ashford, County Wicklow, but so desperate was the owner of Mount Usher and the residents of Ashford that they decided to go public to induce the Minister and the Government to do something about this problem before it was too late.
The problem is acute. There is a plan before the Minister to pump the sewage from Ashford and Rathnew into the new plant in Wicklow town, which has just begun operation, but that plan at the earliest estimate will not come into existence until 1997. We are now five years away from that and Mount Usher will have to put up with five more years of foul odours, of tourists being put off and of acquiring a bad reputation.
I say to the Minister that Mount Usher and Wicklow cannot wait until 1997 for action to be taken. If these foul smells continue, nobody will be going to Mount Usher by 1997. People will either by-pass it because it has a bad reputation or it will be sold by the present owners either for development or to someone who wants to close the gardens completely. One way or the other it will be adversely affected.
I do not exaggerate. Bord Fáilte have written to Mount Usher this summer telling them that they no longer comply with the standards Bord Fáilte expect from a garden with such an international reputation. They do not think they can advertise it any longer because of the foul smells which confront tourists when they go there. The Historic Gardens and Houses Association also wrote to Mount Usher during the summer saying they will also have to reconsider the membership of Mount Usher Gardens for its association  because it is in danger of non-compliance with those standards.
This is a tragedy for Ireland. It is a tragedy for tourism and employment in the area. Everybody maintains that it is somebody else's responsibility. Wicklow County Council maintain that it has a great deal to do with Dublin and there is nothing they can do because the plan is with the Minister. The Minister is not responding to letters from the Mount Usher owners.
The other element of this tragedy is the appallingly low present level of the Vartry river which flows through Mount Usher. That low level is now threatening the ecology of the area and particularly the plant life. An extraordinarily comprehensive study by Mr. Adrian Hamilton of the Vartry River in County Wicklow, called “The ‘Death of a River”’ was issued in 1991. In summer months that river is down to a trickle and urgently needs more water. It was declared a salmon river by the EC, and by the Government as far back as 1982. The fish life which used to flourish in that river is no longer as healthy as it once was. If the Vartry River, which is the life blood of Mount Usher and other parts of Ashford, County Wicklow, and of Hunters' Hotel and other prime tourist spots, is allowed to die, not only will the village of Ashford but one of the great tourist spots of Ireland will be allowed to die. We have a combination of a river being allowed to run dry and a sewage plant being allowed — and the emphasis must be on “allowed” because it is neglect and lack of action which is killing this prized heritage. The Minister must provide the funds not just to facilitate the end of these foul smells but to make sure that it happens long before 1997. Otherwise Irish tourism, Wicklow tourism and Ashford tourism will suffer an appalling loss and Mount Usher will have to be closed.
Minister of State at the Department of the Marine (Mr. Gallagher): I am pleased at an opportunity to respond to the question raised by Senator Ross, that is, improving sewerage facilities for Ashford and Rathnew. The elimination of pollution and the provision of modern sewage treatment and disposal arrangements is a  priority objective of this Government. Significant progress continues to be made in providing new and improved treatment plants at various locations throughout the country, including Tuam, Athlone, Clonmel and Baltinglass which has recently been completed. The economic and social benefits of these schemes will greatly enhance the development potential of these and other areas in years to come.
The environmental action programme published in 1990 outlines the Government's objectives and strategy in relation to the provision of water supplies and the disposal of sewage to inland and coastal waterways. Since the publication of this programme over £210 million has been invested by this Government in a water and sanitary services programme. This high level of investment clearly demonstrates the high priority given to this programme by the Government. Local authorities, including Wicklow County Council, have made great progress in the planning and design of new schemes. These will be integrated in the water and sanitary services programme in the coming years.
The urban waste water directive which was anticipated in the environment action programme will require local authorities to put in place appropriate sewage treatment, sludge management and disposal arrangements for major coastal towns. I am glad to note that the Wicklow authorities have commenced the planning of schemes to service Arklow, Bray, Greystones, Newtownmountkennedy and Wicklow town that will meet the requirements of this directive.
The existing sewerage system serving Ashford was provided in the mid-seventies and is located downstream from Mount Usher Gardens. This treatment plant is in good condition and well managed but is operating to its full capacity and beyond that at peak tourist times. The discharge from this works is also situated downstream of Mount Usher Gardens and as such does not influence the river water quality in these gardens. Any pollution encountered in the Vartry River at the gardens is unlikely to have come from the treatment works.
 I understand that there have been reports of odour problems associated with these works, especially during the dry summer season. This would obviously have adverse implications for the tourist status of the gardens. The reduced flows in the river during the summer months have not helped the situation but despite these adverse circumstances river water quality throughout the Vartry River is very good. This has been attested to by periodic reports of the environment research unit. Given that the existing works at Ashford and Rathnew are operating at full capacity, Wicklow County Council have prepared a preliminary report which examines the options for investment. This report is currently under consideration in the Department of the Environment.
I am impressed by the case made by Senator Ross. I have taken note of the points made by him in relation to Bord Fáilte, the Historic House and Gardens Association, and his reference to fish life; all the points raised by him will be brought to the attention of the Minister.
Mr. Ross: I thank the Minister for his reply and would like to ask him, in view of the urgency he acknowledges, if he would recommend to the Minister for the Environment that he meet representatives from Mount Usher so that they could impress upon him the seriousness of the problem, not just for Ashford and Wicklow but for Ireland as well.
Mr. Gallagher: I do not want to sound facetious but the case made by Senator Ross has been so impressive that I doubt if any deputation meeting the Minister could make it more impressively. However, I will advise the Minister of the Senator's request and I will also relate to him the impressive case made by the Senator.
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