Sunday 27 January 2008

EPA targets over 300 public water supplies for enforcement action

The EPA has released a report entitled - 'The Provision and Quality of Drinking Water in Ireland: A Report for the Years 2006 - 2007'.

This is the EPA's first report on drinking water quality since new Regulations were introduced in March 2007. These new Regulations provide a greater level of consumer protection by requiring public water suppliers to notify the EPA and the Health Service Executive where there is a potential risk to human health and to comply with their directions.

The report is based on the results of over 220,000 individual analyses of drinking water samples.

The report found that -

* E. coli was detected at least once in 77 out of 944 public water supplies. This indicates intermittent contamination of over 8 per cent of public water supplies;
* E. coli was detected in almost 36 per cent of private group water schemes. This means that, out of 688 schemes monitored, 246 were contaminated at least once during 2006;
* Compliance with the required chemical standards was satisfactory for all supplies (99.3 per cent compliance);
* Since the introduction of the new drinking water Regulations, the EPA issued 22 binding directions to 12 local authorities in order to restore a clean and wholesome water supply;
* The EPA has now identified over 300 public water supplies - representing 36 per cent of all public drinking water supplies - that require detailed profiling from catchment to consumer to determine whether the supply needs to be replaced or upgraded - or where operational practices need to be improved to ensure that the water supplied to the general public is clean and wholesome.

In setting out his enforcement plan for 2008, Dara Lynott, Director, EPA Office of Environmental Enforcement said - "The enforcement of the drinking water Regulations by the EPA will be risk-based and outcome-driven. The principal risks to drinking water are those that have a health impact - particularly contamination of supplies associated with E. coli and Cryptosporidium. The highest number of notifications received by the EPA in 2007 related to contamination of supplies with E. coli. This situation is unacceptable."

The EPA report concludes that sampling of drinking water at the tap provides only a snapshot of the quality of the water supply and cannot be relied on as the sole indicator of a safe and secure drinking water supply.

Gerard O'Leary, Programme Manager, EPA Office of Environmental Enforcement said - "There are two requirements in providing clean and wholesome drinking water - firstly, the water supplier needs to ensure that water is safe to drink and, secondly, the water supplier needs to ensure that the water supply is secure."

By way of example, the report highlights that the Galway City water supply was sampled over 500 times in 2006 and over 99 per cent of samples were compliant. However, the supply was also classified as very high-risk in relation to Cryptosporidium contamination and, in fact, there was a very significant outbreak of Cryptosporidium in 2007, which resulted in a boil notice on drinking water in Galway city for over five months.

As Gerard O'Leary explains - "The Cryptosporidium contamination of the Galway City water supply shows that sampling at the tap - on its own - does not guarantee the safety of the drinking water supply, if the security of the supply has not been dealt with. Compliance with the 48 drinking water standards has to be taken as the minimum requirement to be achieved and not something to be aspired to over a number of years."

He added - "The ability of water suppliers to provide clean and wholesome drinking water will be determined by using a wider range of control and management criteria than has previously been the case."

To provide for a safe and secure drinking water supply, the EPA now requires that all risks associated with a water supply be identified, monitored and managed.

Since the introduction of new drinking water Regulations in 2007, the EPA has identified over 300 water supplies for further enforcement action, following -

* risk assessments undertaken by local authorities
* a review of over three years' drinking water data
* audits of water treatment plants
* consultations with the Health Services Executive - and
* liaison with the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government.

These actions will require the replacement of some supplies, a significant capital investment in other supplies and/or significant changes in operational practices. The priority for the EPA's enforcement effort in 2008 will be to work with local authorities to secure drinking water supply into the future.

The European Communities (Drinking Water) Regulations (No.2), 2007 assigned new powers and responsibilities to the EPA in the drinking water area. Since March 2007, the new powers assigned to the EPA include a responsibility to -

* Ensure local authorities are taking the appropriate action to ensure that public water supplies comply with the relevant quality standards;
* Review the actions taken by local authorities in public water supplies where there has been a breach of a standard or any other risk to human health;
* Review and approve monitoring programmes to ensure that adequate monitoring is carried out by local authorities;
* Audit local authority water treatment plants - and
* Publish guidance on how local authorities are to implement the Regulations - including binding guidelines on auditing.

The local authority, in turn, has been designated as the supervisory authority over private water supplies (including group water schemes) and has similar responsibilities to the EPA in relation to these supplies.

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