18th January

Report reveals half the country’s treatment plants are below EU standards

The EPA report Urban Waste-water Discharges in Ireland (2006-2007) is a barely disguised wake-up call for local authority officials and politicians alike.

Its key findings are stark.

Despite acknowledging a marked increase in the spread and sophistication of waste water treatment plants throughout the country in the last twenty years, the report notes that without a marked improvement in the way many of them are operated and monitored, Ireland will fail to comply with the Urban Waste-water Treatment Regulation.The cost of analysing a sample of urban waste-water is somewhere between €50-€100 per month

The cost of analysing a sample of urban waste-water is somewhere between €50-€100 per month

The fact also that 112 – or 23% - of the 482 villages, towns and cities audited still have either no waste-water infrastructure at all, or if they do, it is inadequate, should be enough to be keeping more than a few county managers and local authority officials awake at night.

And as if these findings were not sufficiently shocking, the shameful revelation in the report that 50% of waste water from Ireland’s treatment plants is failing to meet EU standards because plants are either not operating properly, or are overloaded, should make the rest of us very worried indeed.

 

Gerard O’Leary, a chemist and programme manager with the EPA, and one of the report’s authors, talked to Inshore Ireland about its key findings.

What does this report reveal about the way Ireland deals with the treatment of urban waste water?
This is a very, very important report. It shows that Ireland has come a long way from a situation in the early 1980s when we had waste-water treatment for about 20% of the population.

That’s now gone up to 90%. Nevertheless, we need to finish the job, and that’s why in the report we are looking for continued investment in waste-water treatment.

Should we be concerned at the reports key findings?
Very much so. Waste water from 192 treatment plants did not meet the EU quality standards because they were either not operating properly or they were overloaded.

Waste-water was also being discharged with either no treatment or basic treatment at 112 locations at the end of the 2007 reporting period. And as of June this year, 93 of these are still without treatment or have just basic treatment.

In the majority of cases these discharges are to esturine or coastal waters. The result of all this is that our overall compliance rate with the EU directive is only 41% for large secondary treatment plants and just 24% for small plants.

In Leaving Cert parlance that would barely get us a grade ‘D’ for the large plants and a ‘Fail’ for the smaller ones. On top of that, insufficient or incorrect sampling accounts for 25% of non-compliances for all plant sizes and categories.

Has the EPA been given the legislative teeth to deal more effectively with breaches of the urban waste-water directive?
Yes. Since the end of 2007, all discharges, treated or otherwise, must have a licence from the EPA. In effect this means that we now set certain conditions as to what treatments should be required, and also the level of monitoring that must be carried out.

If these are not discharged within the time lines set out in our licences, we will be racking up our enforcement action – up to and including prosecution.

Is it really true that many local authorities are not managing their treatment plants or monitoring discharges the way they should?
Yes. Firstly, there are many cases where we are not happy with the way the plant is being managed and operated. Secondly, there is a minimum water monitoring requirement for all plants.

We found that a quarter of all plant sizes and categories were non-compliant because of insufficient or incorrect sampling in the first instance. If a sample is taken incorrectly or if the required number of samples is not taken, the plant is considered to be out of compliance with national regulations and the Directive.

Why would a local authority not carry out adequate and correct sampling?
How many samples are required per year, and is it expensive? For the most part it’s only 12 water samples a year per plant, while larger cities such as Dublin and Cork might require 24.

To analyse a sample of urban waste-water it costs somewhere between €50 and €100 a month. I can’t understand why it was not being done!

In terms of cost and complexity, is there a significant difference between monitoring discharge water and drinking water?
The procedures required to monitor drinking water are much more complex than those required to monitor a waste-water treatment plant. As regards drinking water, and I don’t say this loosely, we are one of the best in Europe. So, there should be no reason why we can’t also meet minimum EU standards for urban waste-water.

The data analysed by the EPA in this report was supplied by the local authorities. Are you confident that it was reliable data in the first place?
Local authorities are statutorily required to provide this type of data, and the remit of the EPA is to analyse it.

In terms of quality assurance, we would regularly validate such data with the assistance of the Department of the Environment who are involved in funding much of the waste-water treatment. We also will have greater validation because we’ve now got a licensing system that’s going to require more detailed monitoring.

So, I think we have got good data. Local authority laboratories form part of a quality assurance programme developed by the EPA where we send them blank samples and they have to come back to us with the result. So there is an inter-calibration scheme that we will obviously be aware of.

What have been the obvious benefits throughout Ireland of increased secondary waste-water treatment ?
One of the main reasons that the EU put the Urban Waste-water Directive in place almost 18 years ago was to protect public health. In this country we now have many Blue Flag beaches because we have put in waste-water treatment systems.

For example, Greystones in Co Wicklow has a discharge very close to its beach but because there is also a proper waste-water infrastructure it maintains its Blue Flag status.

How does Ireland compare with the other EU countries in its treatment of urban waste-water?
A European Court of Auditors report has shown that we compare well with other Cohesion Fund countries like Spain, Greece and Portugal. Like us, these countries had the longest journey to travel in terms of waste-water treatment.

So if you compare Ireland with countries that have come from a similar base line, we are actually better than they are now in terms of secondary treatment. It can be difficult getting such data but I do know that other EU countries have also had difficulty with this Urban Waste-water Treatment Directive because of the huge capital investment required.

What is meant by primary, secondary and tertiary waste-water treatment?
Primary treatment or ‘basic treatment’ is where 50-70% of suspended solids are removed in settlement tanks.

And as that is going on, the Biochemical Oxygen Demand, or BOD, is reduced by 20-50%, and the bacterial count by between 25-75%. The pH is generally unaffected. In the next phase, secondary treatment or ‘adequate treatment’, using biological processes 85-90% of the organic matter removed.

In some cases that can be even higher. Finally, tertiary treatment is where you’re effectively ‘polishing the effluent’ prior to discharge by removing nutrients such as phosphorous or nitrogen.

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