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 Header Item Sustainable Development Goals (Continued)
 Header Item Wastewater Treatment

Thursday, 25 February 2021

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 1004 No. 6
Unrevised

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh: Information on Marc Ó Cathasaigh Zoom on Marc Ó Cathasaigh] Will the Minister comment on that?

Deputy Eamon Ryan: Information on Eamon Ryan Zoom on Eamon Ryan It is true. The response I delivered is, if I may say so, a kind of departmental presentation as to what the system is doing, which I believe is what was requested. I agree with the Deputy; we need to be more ambitious, heed that report from Social Justice Ireland and realise that we are not doing enough to meet the environmental goals in particular. We have to go further and to be far more radical. I commit to delivering on those goals as best I can.

I will give some examples of areas in which we are starting to ramp up and show real leadership which might encourage the Deputy. We are only at the public consultation stage at present but the introduction of a nationwide ban on smoky fuels, which will improve air quality, is an example of Government delivering an environmental benefit that will also deliver significant health benefits. It is something we can do. Earlier today, in answer to a question on promised legislation, I referred to the work the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, is doing with regard to the roll-out of less intensive farming systems and opening up the organics scheme in order to radically increase the number of farmers who are paid well for their produce while being engaged in the restoration and protection of nature and developing high-quality food.

I would also refer to the work being done to develop marine protected areas. Again, we are only at the consultation stage, but we are going to deliver on this. Our sea area is ten times larger than our land area. We have a responsibility to protect nature there with real ambition and to do what the great ecologist E. O. Wilson recommends, which is to set aside large areas of the natural world for the protection and restoration of nature. A further example within my own Department is our really ambitious 200-action plan for a new circular economy. This will take the advice of yesterday's Social Justice Ireland report with regard to phasing out single-use plastics. We have also done real work in the area of just transition. We are investing in the rewetting of our bogs to create jobs. The Deputy is absolutely right; this Government has started developing a new well-being index, which is a key part of this transition. We also recognise that, as the Deputy says, it is in the likes of the Department of Finance as well as in the Department of Taoiseach that this must be centred. I believe that is happening.

We are only at the start but the Deputy is right; let us be held to account. If we cannot improve on our delivery on those 17 goals, we will have failed in our mission. That is our manifesto. It is for all parties in this House. It is to provide us with a better future and I believe we can do that.

Wastewater Treatment

Deputy Jennifer Whitmore: Information on Jennifer  Whitmore Zoom on Jennifer  Whitmore I want to talk to the Minister of State about the wastewater treatment plant in Arklow. This is absolutely critical infrastructure not only for Arklow and County Wicklow, but for the country. As the Minister of State will be aware, the Avoca river has significant issues with pollution as a result of mismanagement and a lack of infrastructure within the Arklow area. This project has been in planning for years and years. Residents have been waiting for it and are very eager to see progress being made. Businesses are also waiting for something to happen. The whole town is waiting for this project to get moving.

Irish Water has been working on it and the plans are in place but it is now sitting on the Minister's desk. In late 2020, the proposal was submitted to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage. It is now awaiting ministerial consent. It is important that this project be developed as quickly as possible. Arklow has great potential but this potential is being restricted by the fact that this infrastructure is not in place. I refer to potential from a tourism perspective, a business and economic perspective and a housing perspective. Arklow is really on hiatus waiting for this project to happen. From an environmental perspective, fines are potentially coming down the road if this work is not done.

My question is very simple. What progress is being made in respect of the wastewater treatment plant? Will the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage expedite this matter because, as I have said, it has been on his desk since late 2020, three months ago? This is an important project and we need to focus on it. My third question relates to funding. I want to make sure that funding is in place and that this project can start as quickly as possible because the contract cannot be allocated until this funding is signed off on.

Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage (Deputy Malcolm Noonan): Information on Malcolm Noonan Zoom on Malcolm Noonan Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta. Her points on human health, business and the development of Arklow are well-raised. It also involves an area of mutual interest to me and the Deputy, the area of nature, biodiversity and the environment. There is no doubt that this project must be expedited.

Since January 2014, Irish Water has had statutory responsibility for all aspects of water services planning, delivery and operation at national, regional and local levels. The prioritisation and progression of individual projects is a matter for determination by Irish Water.

As part of budget 2021, funding of more than €1.4 billion was secured to support water services. This includes €1.3 billion in respect of domestic water services provision by Irish Water. This overall investment will deliver significant improvements in our public water and wastewater services, support improved water supplies right across Ireland, including rural Ireland, and support a range of programmes delivering improved water quality in our rivers, lakes and marine area.

Arklow has been identified by the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, as an area where wastewater is discharged into the Avoca river without any treatment. This practice of discharging untreated wastewater into the river is no longer acceptable. Irish Water is working to address this historical issue, in partnership with Wicklow County Council, through the provision of a new wastewater treatment plant in Arklow. This will bring benefits to the town and surrounding areas in terms of health, environmental protection and improved water quality for all.

The Arklow wastewater treatment plant must be delivered in a way that not only meets the required legislative standards but that also ensures that all works are undertaken in a safe and environmentally responsible manner, in co-operation with the local community. Under the Water Services Act 2013, Irish Water is required, as the Deputy said, to seek the consent of the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, given with the approval of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, to enter into capital commitments. Irish Water must seek ministerial consent prior to entering into any individual capital commitment of a value in excess of €20 million. This is a financial control and not an issue of project consent.

In the context of the updated public spending code for evaluating, planning and managing public investment in the project as it proceeds through its life cycle, consideration is also being given to the appropriate application of the code having regard to the current life cycle stage of the project.

I assure the Deputy that the capital commitment consent request is currently under active consideration. However, given the significant investment by the taxpayer, this does involve close scrutiny by my Department and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. In addition, NewERA carries out an in-depth review of the request on behalf of Ministers to help inform the decision. I also understand that some further inputs into the review process are awaited from Irish Water. However, the Minister, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, hopes to be in a position to provide a timely decision to support Irish Water in its delivery of the project once all scrutiny is complete.

Deputy Jennifer Whitmore: Information on Jennifer  Whitmore Zoom on Jennifer  Whitmore I was hoping for a commitment that this would be fast-tracked. It is a really important project. I understand that all the checks and balances have to be in place and that it is a very large project but, because of its importance, it would be really good to see it prioritised and for it to be ensured that it happens as quickly as possible. An indication of the timeline would also be really good. The proposal at the moment is for Irish Water to finish this project in 2024 or 2025 but there have been delays in the process all the way along. We want to prevent any further slippage and, rather than have slippage, for the whole thing to be expedited so that it can be done as quickly as possible. I know this requires ministerial consent but does it need to go to Cabinet? Is the project of such a significant size that it needs Cabinet approval? If that is the case, when does the Minister of State envisage it going to Cabinet?

Initially, it seemed funding of approximately €30 million was required but lately there have been reports that in excess of €100 million may be required. Is the Minister of State aware of any increase in costs and whether this could potentially impact on the delivery of this project because, to be honest, we cannot allow anything to impact this project? As I said, Arklow has waited for this for 20 years. The town cannot wait any longer. The river, biodiversity and the environment cannot wait any longer either. My fear is that, if progress slows any further, too much damage will be incurred.


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