Water and Sewerage Schemes.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Seanad Éireann Debate
Vol. 188 No. 11

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Senator Nicky McFadden: Information on Nicky McFadden Zoom on Nicky McFadden I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach and welcome the Minister of State back to the House. He was in the House the last time I raised an Adjournment matter and I thank him. I wish to raise a pressing issue regarding the Athlone main drainage project and the Government’s failure to allocate adequate funds to the scheme, as promised by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government for many years. It has been promised since I first was elected to Athlone Town Council in 1999.

Funding of €15 million has been allocated to the scheme under the water services investment programme 2007-09, as part of the national development plan. However, €15 million falls far short of the expected cost of the scheme, which has been examined and detailed in a comprehensive report that was submitted to the Department in 2006. The report was never examined by the Department. Consequently, Athlone Town [844]Council revised the original report and re-submitted it to the Department in 2007. Unfortunately, Westmeath County Council and Athlone Town Council have received no response from the Department, except to state that the scheme is still under consideration. It is appalling that the application for funding for the Athlone main drainage project has been sitting on someone’s desk for a full year without any response being made to the local authority.

The report notes that the total cost of the scheme is estimated to be €80 million. Consequently, the allocated sum of €15 million falls €65 million short of this figure. This means that Athlone cannot address its sewage problems. These figures and the lack of action provide ample evidence that the Government is not committed to the development and sustained growth of Athlone.

Athlone already has received applications from five companies that are willing to begin work on the drainage scheme. However, as the Minister of State is aware, planning of the construction phase of the scheme cannot begin nor can a commitment be made to a building contract unless the Department accepts the county council’s proposal and allocates the funding.

It is estimated that without any hitches arising, the building work to improve drainage and sewage treatment will take three years to complete from the date of approval of the preliminary report and the appointment of a consulting engineer to draw up the design. While it will take three years to complete without any hitches, I will not hold my breath because the design phase has not yet been reached.

This was outlined in Westmeath County Council’s report to the Department. I urge the Minister of State and the Government to accept the proposals in order that this important work can begin. Were Athlone not designated as a gateway town in the spatial strategy, I shudder to think what would happen. The Minister of State has already referred to this point in his comments to Senator Healy Eames. How can the Government be committed to a national spatial strategy that aims to achieve a better balance of social, economic and physical development across Ireland when in reality, the most basic access to fundamental drainage and sewerage facilities are not in place?

The current position in Athlone is absolutely appalling. The River Shannon is being polluted by overflows of untreated raw sewage. This is a matter of serious concern to local residents and unless addressed, will have negative and lasting effects on wildlife and the environment. The risk of disease and the potential spread of infection also constitutes a serious threat to residents. Members already have seen the devastating effects caused by cross-contamination of fresh water by untreated sewage in County Galway. I do not want a position to arise in County Westmeath in which the county’s residents will have [845]no clean water, despite the effects of water contamination on their businesses, tourism, and livelihoods. One runs the risk of the same thing happening in Athlone as happened in Galway until the drainage and sewage treatment scheme commences.

The town of Athlone is expected to become a city in the near future. However, without basic drainage and sewage facilities in place for residents, the town will not be able to sustain itself. As matters stand, its facilities are at full capacity. This will have serious implications on the town’s people and its future development. Until the scheme is implemented, town planning, growth and development cannot continue. Moreover, new houses cannot be built and existing houses and business cannot be maintained.

The national spatial strategy requires the building up of areas of sufficient scale and critical mass through a network of gateways and hubs. The spatial strategy designated four new national level gateways, which include the towns of Athlone, Tullamore and Mullingar. These towns are supposed to increase their populations by providing a centre for business, residential and amenity functions. The spatial strategy also identifies an important need to support the role of smaller towns, villages and rural areas. Westmeath County Council has recently completed its development plan and a complete freeze on development has been imposed on the town of Moate because its sewerage system is at capacity. This is will happen in Athlone unless it gets its drainage scheme. How can Athlone be considered a gateway if it cannot provide for basic amenities and infrastructure? If the current situation remains, the gateway will not have the capacity to become a reality. It is of primary importance to put in place the fundamental infrastructure.

According to the national spatial strategy, the importance of other plans and programmes and their relevance to achieving the aims of the strategy are recognised. This, it is hoped, will grant quicker and greater access to the gateway plan but I cannot understand how development in other areas is possible if the most basic needs of our town’s infrastructure cannot be addressed.

The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government cannot ignore this matter any longer. Urgent action is needed. It is very frustrating for the local authority, including its members, to hear the same points year in, year out. I urge the Minister of State to raise my concerns with the Minister.

Deputy Tony Killeen: Information on Tony Killeen Zoom on Tony Killeen I thank the Senator for the opportunity to clarify the position on the important Athlone sewerage scheme. The scheme has been approved for funding under the Department’s water services investment programme for the period 2007 to 2009 at an estimated cost of €15 million. The scheme is one of a total of 19 water services projects being progressed in [846]County Westmeath at present with the support of unprecedented Exchequer funding from the Department under the national development plan. The current programme, which the Minister announced last September, allows for the investment of €219 million in water and sewerage schemes in County Westmeath over the next few years. A copy of the programme is available in the Oireachtas Library.

The range of new water and sewerage schemes planned and in progress for Westmeath provides strong evidence of the Government’s determination to safeguard the environment, while at the same time making provision for new jobs and new development and all the other requirements of a successful economy, including residential activity.

The midlands linked gateway of Athlone-Tullamore-Mullingar is one of the nine gateways in the national spatial strategy. Linking the three strong midland towns will ensure they work in partnership to promote economic and social development in the midlands region. The alignment of the National Development Plan 2007-2013 with the principles and objectives of the national spatial strategy places the strategy at the heart of future investment decisions by Departments and agencies.

The €15 million Athlone sewerage scheme involves a major expansion and overhaul of the wastewater treatment plant and the collection network around the town. The objective is to facilitate economic growth and expansion. The scheme clearly underlines the key role envisaged for Athlone as a central element of the midland gateway under the national spatial strategy. As well as supporting development and economic expansion, it also provides for a range of environmental improvements, including the elimination of discharges into the marina, reduced frequency of storm overflows to the Shannon itself and the rehabilitation of existing sewers. There will be a large increase in the capacity of the wastewater treatment plant, which currently deals with a load in excess of 20,000 population equivalent to 40,000 population equivalent.

The preliminary report for the scheme, which sets out the design parameters and objectives of the project, together with a brief for the appointment of consultants for the procurement and construction stages, have been submitted to the Department by Westmeath County Council. The Department will be responding to the council very shortly. The objective of the response will be to guide the council on how to advance the scheme through the remaining stages with the least possible delay. In that context, it is apparent that the treatment plant element of the project will require an environmental impact assessment. The Department will work with the council to allow the EIS process and other necessary preparatory work on the scheme to proceed in parallel with a view to optimising progress towards the tender and construction phases. The [847]necessary funding is allocated for draw-down by the council as required.

I can assure the Senator that the Minister is equally anxious to see the scheme go to construction and completion quickly and the Department will be doing everything it can to facilitate this. However, the Senator will also appreciate that multi-million euro projects that are being funded by the taxpayer must proceed through the proper planning and development processes to ensure they meet their intended objectives, that they are designed and constructed in an environmentally acceptable and economical manner and that they produce treated wastewater or drinking water, as the case may be, to a standard that meets national and EU requirements.

I fully agree that this project is vitally important for the development of Athlone. The Senator will be aware that the Department has already funded works to upgrade the existing water treatment plant at Athlone at an estimated cost of €4.2 million. These works, which will be finalised in the coming weeks, provide for increased water treatment capacity in the town. The status of Athlone as part of the midland linked gateway is well understood and the Department will continue to work closely with Westmeath County Council to ensure that the sewerage scheme is also delivered as soon as possible.

Senator Nicky McFadden: Information on Nicky McFadden Zoom on Nicky McFadden I thank the Minister of State for his reply, which I welcome. He is acknowledging that €15 million is being allocated. However, how is the shortfall of €65 million to be met? The Minister of State said the Department will be responding to the council very shortly. What does he mean by “very shortly” in light of the delay of seven or eight years?

Deputy Tony Killeen: Information on Tony Killeen Zoom on Tony Killeen I will try to ensure it means exactly that but I will revert to the Senator on the issue. I am not aware of the figure of €65 million and will check it.

Senator Nicky McFadden: Information on Nicky McFadden Zoom on Nicky McFadden The total cost of the project is €80 million.

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