Wednesday, 26 October 2005
Seanad Eireann Debate
Mr. Dooley: I welcome the Minister to the House and take this opportunity to recognise the efforts made by him on this issue. Both he and the Minister of State, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe, have been available to Members and have met deputations and delegations from Ennis. The Minister of State, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe, has visited Ennis on a number of occasions in dealing with this matter.
There is difficulty surrounding the current quality of water in Ennis. The Minister has put in place the services of his Department to ensure that paperwork on the delivery of a new treatment plant will be expedited and that no unnecessary delay takes place. The Minister is well aware of the problem, which appears to be recurring. It is not satisfactory that the solution will take two years to be delivered, and it is not fair to the people of Ennis and surrounding areas served by the town’s water supply. It is estimated that the treatment plant will take two years, going through the process of tendering and construction, and this is unacceptable.
Ennis is now on its third boil notice for this year and a review which took place today found an element of contamination in the water. The boil notice has been extended, and another test will be carried out tomorrow. I hope the boil notice will be lifted at that stage. Boil notices have been in place for two of the past five months, which is again unacceptable. Such circumstances create much inconvenience for the people of Ennis and residents, particularly the elderly and parents of young children, are living in fear. The Minister may be aware that the first boil notice was brought about as a result of the health services having concerns over a number of children presenting with symptoms associated with water contamination. When the county council carried out testing their hypothesis was proven correct and remedial action was taken. These are the concerns that have been to the fore.
In addition, the reputation of Ennis as a tourism town, particularly in the light of its welcome success in the Tidy Towns competition, is now being eroded by the ongoing problem with the public water supply, which will have an impact on the future economic life of the town. This is not to underestimate the impact it has on the people who live there and use the water supply on a daily basis. Hotels are particularly concerned as their business is threatened. Concerns have also been expressed to me by a number of airlines, particularly those with transatlantic flights, regarding the overnight stay of their staff in Ennis hotels. The concern is that contaminated water could cause illness to pilots and air stewards while on their return journey. I do not need to explain the potentially disastrous consequences to the Minister. While this might sound over the top, it reflects the concerns of airlines who have seen the effects of contaminated water in other jurisdictions.
We need urgent action to implement a temporary solution to restore confidence in the Ennis water supply until the permanent treatment plant is installed in two years time. I recognise that nothing can be done to speed up the delivery process of the new plant. The Minister has been extremely helpful in identifying all the processes and in facilitating the movement of paperwork. However, we must look to a temporary solution. I understand the town and county engineers are currently reviewing an interim solution that could provide a stopgap measure until the treatment plant is operational. I ask the Minister and his Department to assist this process in a number of ways. First, by the provision of any expertise available within the Department to define or develop a solution that would help to solve the problem on an interim basis. Second, if such an interim solution can be obtained, I hope that the Department would enter discussions with the town and county manager, with a view to making a special grant available to fund it.
Currently, there is a real cost to the people of Ennis. When water is contaminated and a boil notice is in operation, many people do not trust the boiling process and buy water for drinking purposes. I ask the Minister to give some direction or assistance to the council to facilitate the deployment of tankers henceforth, particularly if the current boil notice continues beyond tomorrow or if a boil notice must be reinstated in the future. The cost of boiling water places a serious financial burden on many families, particularly those with young children and those we would consider to be among the most vulnerable in terms of social exclusion.
I thank the Minister for his actions to date. While he has been to the fore in terms of providing assistance, some additional measures can be taken. While I recognise the construction process will take some time, some guidance from the Department to the council in respect of providing tankers would be welcome, if that becomes an ongoing necessity. I am particularly interested in seeing the implementation of a more robust interim measure that will endure for two years. Given that engineers are working on the project, I ask the Minister to consider making available the requisite financial resources.
Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Mr. Roche): I thank Senator Dooley for raising this issue. I have spoken to him about this matter privately a number of times and I fully share his concerns. It is unacceptable that a town of the size of Ennis, or any town, should be subjected to regular boil notices. The issue was discussed in the Dáil last week by my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe, who emphasised the urgent need for progress on a solution to the present situation. I appreciate this opportunity to express my concern and that of my Department for the people of Ennis and its surrounding areas who have been greatly inconvenienced by the boil water notices.
This issue has occurred in my constituency a number of times. Senator Dooley is correct to state that it is enormously disruptive to be obliged to deal with this problem, particularly for households with elderly or young people. Moreover, trust in the water system declines. I also share the view that all stops must be pulled out to solve this problem quickly.
The difficulty with the Ennis water supply system stems from its source’s vulnerability to contamination from both septic tanks and agriculture. Currently, chlorination is the only process undergone by the water. While disinfection by chlorination normally produces a good quality supply, it must be supplemented by additional treatment to remove the occasional risk associated with chlorine-resistant organisms in the water.
The Ennis town water supply treatment scheme, which will put the necessary treatment facilities in place, has been approved for construction in my Department’s water supply services investment programme at an estimated cost of €6.5 million. I have already given clearance to Clare County Council to invite tenders for the scheme and the money for its construction is available to be drawn down from my Department the moment it is required. There will be no delay in this respect. My Department’s officials have been assisting the council to speed up the finalisation of the tender documents and the council has already short-listed a panel of suitable contractors who are being asked to tender for the scheme. I have impressed on officials the fact that I want the administrative process to be dealt with without any undue delay.
I want the work to get under way at the earliest possible date. However, we must be realistic and remember that the infrastructure that will be put in place must solve the problem effectively and permanently. Any effort to cut time would mean cutting corners, with the consequent risk of future recurrences. We would have something second rate in place. The job must be done properly to avoid wasting public money, to ensure we get the right result and, above all, to ensure the people of Ennis have an adequate water supply in the future. The permanent solution is a €6.5 million project which will take approximately two years to implement.
In the meantime, I do not wish to contemplate the idea of the people of Ennis being obliged to live under the threat of boil water notices and Clare County Council shares that view. The council has advised my Department that it is actively investigating the availability of temporary treatment facilities to tide the town over until the permanent new plant is in place. I understand the council is currently examining a number of such facilities with a view to securing and maintaining satisfactory water quality in the meantime. My Department will provide the council with any assistance or guidance it can to implement a temporary solution. I agree with Senator Dooley, who made the point that in extremis, tankers may be supplied. However, more substantial measures are also being sought.
I appreciate that temporary relief efforts will cost the council more money. Clare County Council is now the sanitary authority for the entire county and it has received generous funding through general purpose grants from the local government fund in recent years. Its allocation this year amounts to some €14 million, an increase of 7% on 2004 and an increase of more than 350% on the amount available when the Government came to office in 1997. In addition, the council’s commercial rate income has been increasing steadily over the same period. The extra income from the revaluation of the ESB network alone increased the rates by more than €1 million this year. Nevertheless, if the council is obliged to provide a temporary facility, my Department will consider the circumstances of any case it might make for some support.
I reiterate that my Department is working closely with the council to bring the present problems with the town’s water supply to the speediest possible solution. I am conscious of the discomfort caused, particularly to the elderly and those with young children, who are most acutely affected. I realise how great an impact this problem can have. I do not want it to continue for a day longer than necessary. Everything will be done to get the new treatment plant in place as speedily as possible and the House can be assured that any personal contribution I can make in that regard will be brought to bear. As I stated, I will consider any proposals for an interim solution which are put forward from Ennis because I believe that a good, clean water supply is at the core of civilised living.
I again thank Senator Dooley who has fought for this issue daily and has raised it with me continually. His energetic approach has ensured that I will do everything possible to assist his constituents in Ennis and County Clare.
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