Dáil Éireann - Volume 452 - 16 May, 1995

Adjournment Debate. - Ballycroy (Mayo) Group Water Scheme.

Mr. Molloy: In October 1994 a local priest, Fr. Joe Gibbons of Ballycroy, County Mayo, after persistent complaints from his parishioners, decided to have eight separate samples of the local drinking water supply tested by the Department of Medical Microbiology at University College Hospital, Galway. The results of these private and independent tests were that the water contained the bacterium E coli in significant quantities and the water was determined unfit for human consumption.

E coli is an indicator bacterium used to determine the presence of faecal contamination of a water supply. The EU drinking water quality directive AD/778/EEC L229 of 30 August 1980 states that the maximum admissible concentration of total coliforms per 100 millilitres shall be zero. Total coliform counts in the samples taken by Fr. Gibbons ranged from 9 to 32 per 100 millilitres. All samples contravened the drinking water directive.

After further investigation it was revealed that the water supply which is drawn from Lough Annafrin in the Nephin Beg Mountains had been tested previously by the county council and health board in 1992 and 1993 and had [1982] been found to be similarly contaminated. This information had not been made public prior to the privately conducted tests of October 1994. Some 240 households are served by this water source which is managed by Ballycroy group water scheme and its trustees.

Since the area around the lake is uninhabited for several kilometres it was concluded after visual inspection that the only possible source of the excrement contamination was the high sheep densities on the mountain. In addition, visual inspection of the mountain showed the remains of one dead sheep in the headwaters of the supply to the group scheme as well as large amounts of sheep excrement in the vicinity of and above the headwaters of the scheme source.

In addition to the bacteriological contamination of the water supply, samples also contained large amounts of turf humus and varied in turbidity from light rust on good days to dark brown semi-translucency on bad days, after heavy rainfall. The water continues to have an odour and poor taste.

Since the discovery of the water contamination Board Fáilte has expressed its grave concern about the issue and its potential effects on tourism in the area. In addition, two large travel guide publishers have expressed a desire for more information regarding the problem with a view to publishing warnings to travellers in their next editions — Fodor's of New York and Lonely Planet of London. Ballycroy is a developing agri and eco-tourism destination and the contamination of the mains water supply represents a serious obstacle to the growth of such enterprises.

Simultaneous with the discoveries in Ballycroy reports have appeared in the academic world and the national media of problems of erosion in mountainous regions of County Galway and south County Mayo, apparently the result of the intensity of sheep grazing in these areas. Physical inspection showed that [1983] similar erosion had taken place in the Nephin Beg range and that the apparent cause of the turbidity of the water supply was the run-off of turf humus and silt from large areas of eroded hillside which has been denuded of vegetation by the large sheep population. It is probable that the loss of vegetation in the area has decreased the eco-system's ability to trap and recycle sheep droppings. Consequently, the sheep faeces wash directly into the headwaters of the Ballycroy group water scheme, resulting in the high E coli counts.

In February 1995 a formal complaint was lodged by a private resident of Ballycroy with DG XI of the European Commission regarding non-conformity with drinking water directive AD/778/EEC L229. The directive demands a zero E coli count in drinking water. This complaint was accepted by the Commission and is currently pending reply by the Irish Government.

Currently Ballycroy Development Limited, a community based, voluntary and non-profit making company, is making proposals to the Department of the Environment with regard to a properly conducted scientific study of the sources, mechanics and potential technological and environmentally sound solutions to this problem. No reply has been made to these proposals. I wish to ask the Minister what action the Government will take to curtail the source of the contamination, that is, the over-grazing of sheep on the mountain. Why has the Government not exercised its rights to apply the planning Acts and require an environmental impact assessment before allocating additional sheep headage grants under the ewe premium scheme in areas of extreme environmental sensitivity such as the Nephin Beg Mountains?

What measures is the Government taking to ensure that in future the rights of access to environmental information which are enshrined in the EU directive [1984] on freedom of access to environmental information and Statutory Instrument 133 of 1993 are guaranteed to those seeking such information from both county councils and health boards? Why has this not been the case in the past? What plans does the Government have to instigate proper scientific investigation into the erosion problem and its consequences for the landscape, economy and local public health? Why has Coillte Teoranta as land owner in the water catchment area not been obliged to fence and exclude sheep from the area and to cease the leasing of this land for sheep farming?

Minister for Justice (Mrs. Owen): I am glad of the opportunity to respond to the Deputy on this important matter on behalf of the Minister for the Environment, Deputy Howlin.

The Ballycroy area has a private group water scheme which serves up to 290 houses and farms. The scheme was developed through co-operative community effort and with assistance of group water scheme grants of almost £200,000 from the Department of the Environment.

The Deputy will acknowledge that group water schemes have made a huge contribution to the improvement of the lifestyles of rural communities and to the development of agriculture and offfarm economic activities. For over 30 years, successive Governments have supported this “bottom up” approach to providing an essential rural piped water infrastructure. Over 5,400 group schemes have now been completed, serving in excess of 150,000 households.

The Ballycroy group scheme was completed some 15 years ago using an upland lake as the source of supply. Since then, the scheme has been extended to serve a further 50 houses. Unfortunately, in recent years, intensified agricultural activity within the lake catchment has given rise to increased levels of suspended organic matter [1985] entering the lake. This has adversely affected the water quality of the scheme's source.

For some time, the group organisers have been taking steps to protect the source against the threat of organic pollution. An access road to the abstraction site was provided to facilitate maintenance and the immediate area adjacent to the site was fenced off. In parallel with these developments, Mayo County Council formally notified the group of the non-compliance with water quality standards and of the need for various remedial measures, including water treatment facilities. The Department of the Environment invited the group to develop proposals for this purpose which would be financed from the group scheme grants budget.

Unfortunately, some delays took place in the preparation of these remedial proposals. The Ballycroy group has very recently submitted a proposal, prepared by the group's consulting engineer, for the construction of water treatment facilities and of new intake and source protection works. This proposal has been examined in the Department and the group will be authorised shortly to progress the proposal as quickly as possible.

A number of lessons will be learned from the difficult experience of the Ballycroy householders. The majority of group schemes are now connected to public water supply systems. Private sources of supply as lakes, springs and boreholes can be more susceptible to organic pollution and, in these circumstances, groups are advised to filter and disinfect their supply. The Department of the Environment provides grant assistance for such facilities in cases where an alternative public supply is not available. In addition, the Department has published an advisory leaflet entitled “Private Water Supplies: Focus on Quality” which has been widely circulated and is available from county council offices.

[1986] We must guard against excessively negative generalisations in responding to the specific problems of Ballycroy. First, there is no acute problem of drinking water quality either in rural or urban Ireland. Some 94 per cent of Irish drinking water complies with stringent EU quality standards and many of the deficiences affecting the balance are technical rather than substantive.

Second, we should continue to place our confidence in group water schemes as an important community-based and cost effective resource in bringing good quality drinking water to less populous areas. The European Commission has also demonstrated this confidence by agreeing to a new system of co-financing of group schemes. This will allow us to expand work under the programme over the next four years.

As my colleague the Minister for Tourism and Trade has already done, I deplore the irresponsible attempts which have been made to sabotage Irish tourism interests by portraying the difficulties in Ballycroy as being representative of a widespread problem. The broader picture is of high quality drinking water services. The problems of Ballycroy are being urgently addressed. That is the message which should go out.

I will pass on to my colleague, the Minister for the Environment the other questions raised by Deputy Molloy which are allied to this problem.