Sub-standard wastewater situation in Bonmahon

Sub-standard wastewater situation in Bonmahon

I spoke in the Dáil in December on the subject of the sub-standard wastewater situation in Bonmahon. I raised the issue first with the Tánaiste and subsequently with my Green Party colleague, Malcolm Noonan, T.D.  and invited him to visit Bonmahon with me to meet the local campaigners and see the issue on the ground.

Please note; Full transcript of videos below.

Dáil Contributions on Bonmahon

The programme for Government commits to mandating Irish Water to develop plans to ensure security of supply and sufficient capacity in drinking and wastewater networks to allow for balanced regional development. We know that to unlock development outside of our cities, we need to get the basics right. That means quality broadband, good public realm, sustainable transport and, crucially, good water quality. The Tánaiste knows the Waterford coastline better than most. Residents of Bunmahon, a beautiful coastal town at the centre of the Copper Coast UNESCO Global Geopark have been told that they will have to wait beyond 2024 before even being considered for inclusion in Irish Water’s capital investment plan, even though their wastewater system is creaking at the seams. I could say something similar about Tramore pier, Dungarvan Bay and Waterford Estuary. They all have water quality issues and all need significant investment. Does the budget for Irish Water’s capital investment plan need to be expanded to meet these needs in County Waterford and elsewhere?

Dáil contribution on Bunmahon Wastewater. Transcript below.

I am raising an issue I first raised with the Tánaiste two weeks ago, namely, water, in particular wastewater around the Copper Coast area of Waterford and specifically in or around the village of Bunmahon. As the name indicates, Bunmahon is at the mouth of the River Mahon. That river is only 25 km long but it manages to achieve a considerable amount along its course. It rises at the top of the Comeragh Mountains and falls as a waterfall into one of the glacial coums that give the Comeragh Mountains their name.

I know the Minister of State has cycled the greenway and when he crossed the magnificent viaduct in Kilmacthomas he crossed the River Mahon. If he looked down from that viaduct, he would have seen Flavahan’s mill, which has been powered by the River Mahon for many years. If he had his porridge this morning, he will have been in some sense powered by the River Mahon today. It runs into the sea at Bunmahon, a surfing village in the middle of our Copper Coast. That in itself is a UNESCO global geopark and it deserves better than to be treated as an open sewer.

The existing wastewater system is 50 years old and has not been subject to any significant upgrade in that time. It was originally designed to cater for a population of approximately 120 people. It is the most basic of primary treatments. It has a holding tank where the wastewater sits for 24 hours, which allows certain things to settle. The liquid, which is still not very pleasant, is then syphoned off the top. The tanks are desludged annually. However, the permanent population is now double that and is 500 or more during the summer. Therefore, the wastewater system is operating at four times over capacity.

Last Friday, I went to Bunmahon to meet local residents and groups and see the situation on the ground. I stood over the pipe and looked at what was coming out. It was not a pretty sight. The primary treatment is not doing the job it needs to do in separating out the solids. I would not base anything on anecdote having popped out there for one day. Waterford City and County Council conducted a microbiological survey and found exceptionally high levels of E. coli in the water in front of the caravan park and below the bridge. A sample taken in August suggests figures as high as 7,000 or more colony-forming units per 100 ml. The locals know not to leave their kids play there but the holidaymakers might not know that.

Despite all this, Bunmahon was not included in the latest capital investment plan to 2024. The residents were told they would be reconsidered for inclusion in the next plan. I do not want to be parochial, but my constituents have every right to be represented by me on the floor of the Dáil. I could similarly point to Tramore Pier where the RNLI have to put to sea through water that is not fit for such a purpose. Wastewater from Arthurstown, Duncannon and Ballyhack empties into Waterford Harbour with implications for people who are involved in aquaculture further downstream. The Minister of State could name the areas around Carlow and Kilkenny. Zooming out to a European level, we are likely to face fines. I would much prefer to invest in infrastructure than pay fines.

In case I have created a certain image in the Minister of State’s mind of Bunmahon, let me set him straight; Bunmahon is gorgeous. When we were there inspecting the water, we saw kingfisher hunting with that flash of electric blue. From where we were, we could see all the way back up to the Mahon Falls where the river rises. I ask the Minister of State to help me provide a solution that will look after the community and the amazing natural resource it has.

Response from Minister on Bunmahon Wastewater. Transcript below.

Minister Noonan:
I had my Flavahan’s porridge this morning which was oatily delicious. I have it every morning. I am certainly familiar with Bunmahon, a beautiful part of the country.

The primary responsibility for the monitoring, management protection and improvement of water quality is assigned to local authorities under the Local Government (Water Pollution) Acts and related legislation. Since 1 January 2014, Irish Water has had statutory responsibility for all aspects of water services, planning, delivery and operation at national, regional and local level, including investment in wastewater treatment plants and returning wastewater safely to the environment in an efficient and sustainable manner. The Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, is the key statutory body for investigating complaints of pollution and the enforcement, both directly and through oversight of Irish Water and local authorities, of environmental legislation in Ireland, including compliance relating to licensed urban wastewater discharges.

As a country, we have much more work to do to bring our water services infrastructure up to standard. In this regard, as part of budget 2022, the Minister, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, secured funding of €1.57 billion to support water services. This includes €1.459 billion – €629 million in current funding and €830 million in capital funding – in respect of domestic water services provision by Irish Water. The overall investment will deliver significant improvements in our public water and wastewater services, support improved water supplies throughout Ireland, including in rural areas, and support a range of programmes delivering improved quality in our rivers, lakes and marine area. It is key to addressing Ireland’s shortcomings in water and wastewater infrastructure, including compliance with the urban wastewater treatment directive.

Regarding the issues along Waterford’s Copper Coast, I understand that Irish Water has met members of the local community to discuss their concerns with the existing wastewater infrastructure in Bunmahon, with Irish Water committing to review the operation of the current treatment system and to outline its plans for the Bunmahon agglomeration.

In playing a key role in the delivery of water and wastewater infrastructure to meet housing and development needs, addressing legacy infrastructure deficiencies and working to improve compliance with environmental standards for schemes across the country, I welcome Irish Water’s engagement with the local community on this issue. However, we all know it will not be possible to fix all our infrastructural deficits overnight and this work will require significant and sustained capital investment. The Deputy painted a picture of a very challenging situation, particularly in summertime when the population increases fourfold due to visitors. Any treatment system has to reflect the population equivalent in terms of the level of treatment. The fact that it is not included in the capital investment plan, as the Deputy said, needs to be reviewed by Irish Water. It certainly sounds to me to be an issue of urgent priority which needs to be addressed. I will take it back to the Minister and make representations to Irish Water on the Deputy’s behalf as well.

Follow up contribution on Bunmahon Wastewater in Dáil. Full transcript below.

I thank the Minister of State; that is very much appreciated. When I raised this with the Tánaiste, the question I asked was whether we needed to invest more money in wastewater systems. I was amazed when he answered that this year there was an underspend of €100 million. I will give the Minister of State an invitation. If he had €100 million to spend in any county in Ireland, he is more than welcome to come to Waterford to spend it, where it would be well spent throughout the county. There are solutions available. The short-term solution in Bunmahon would be to seal the pipes and to pump out more often so that it is desludged annually.

As the Minister of State will know, only two valleys beyond Bunmahon is the Anne Valley where there is an integrated wetland solution. Wastewater has been dealt with there and there was been an enormous biodiversity co-benefit. Following that, there has been a significant amenity co-benefit because the entirety of the Anne Valley can now be walked. On top of that, there has been an economic benefit because people are walking on what is essentially a septic tank, enjoying it and having a cup of coffee on the way. I invite the Minister of State to walk that area with me and look at it as a possible solution for the Bunmahon area where it would suit just as well. The topography is there. The landowners would be more likely to buy in because they would see the positive example just one village over. It would give the community the signal it needs, because even if it were to be announced in the next capital plan, they could probably live with that if a short-term solution was put in place. Let them do the preparation work which would mean that they could hit the ground running in 2025 and make sure they could provide for their wastewater needs into the future as the village grows.

Minister’s follow-up response on Bunmahon Wastewater Situation. Full transcript for video below.

Minister Noonan: The proposals the Deputy has made are reasonable and should be given consideration. I refer to the point he raised about the underspend. Obviously, there are capacity issues and issues still to be resolved with Irish Water’s structure and its ongoing engagement with local authorities on service level agreements and the work ongoing with the Workplace Relations Commission. That work is progressing well. It will result in Irish Water becoming a fully-fledged public service utility that delivers on the infrastructure and the capital investment, which is unprecedented in the history of the State and which is needed, this Government has committed to. Sustained investment is required in the next decade and beyond to meet the growing population needs and our obligations under river basin management plans and so on. This is an area that is very beautiful but also very pressurised from other sources such as agricultural intensification about which we are currently in public consultation through the river basin management plans. We urge the public to continue to be involved in that process.

I am very familiar with the constructed wetland systems. They offer a solution to which we should give due consideration. For small catchment areas and communities, and even in larger communities, they have proven to work very well. They involve relatively low-cost technology as opposed to large pieces of mechanised infrastructure and, as the Deputy said, they have the added biodiversity benefit. When looking at nature-based solutions for water management, we should consider those types of facilities as well. I would be happy to visit the area in the new year.