Galway urgently needs a bigger, expanded, sewage treatment system

Mutton Island has the capacity for the current city population, but as that population grows, so must our sewage treatment systems

The Mutton Island waste water treatment plant. Photo:- Mike Shaughnessy

The Mutton Island waste water treatment plant. Photo:- Mike Shaughnessy

“This expert-led report, Expanding Ireland’s Marine Protected Area Network, comes at a critical time for Ireland. Decades of poor planning and under investment in our marine and coastal areas have resulted in unsustainable outcomes for our marine environment and the coastal communities that depend on it.”

So the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Malcolm Noonan, who is also a Green Party TD, was reported as saying, following the release of the Government's report on expanding our "marine protected areas".

Our own ‘world famed’ Galway Bay has been coming under increasing pressure from pollution that is caused by various effluents leaking into its waters. Most of it coming from wastewater escaping from broken or misconnected sewer pipes, agricultural run-off, forestry, and housing developments built too close to Lough Corribs waters, especially those having poorly installed septic tanks, or from ‘Storm Water Overflows’.

E.coli and Covid19

Insider remembers reading a Mouchel & Co consultants report produced for the Save Galway Bay group, from about 30 years ago indicating that 50 per cent of the nutrient load polluting Galway Bay came via the Salmon Weir Barrage, with resultant pollution reaching deep into Inner-Galway Bay special area of conservation. Insider believes we have to restore our coastal waters back to a level above that of today, which due to increasing human developments, are continuing to see water quality deteriorate.

'There is evidence from Italy telling us that Covid has been detected in sewage'

Studies led by Prof Dearbháile Morris and Dr Louise O’Connor at the School of Medicine, NUI Galway, that were quoted in an Irish Times article told us that, “E.coli are part of the normal gut flora of humans and animals, but not all E.coli are exactly the same. Some E.coli can produce toxins that can cause serious infection in humans. Shiga-toxigenic E.coli (STEC ) are pathogenic E.coli that can cause severe intestinal infection and potentially renal failure and death. Ireland has had the highest incidence rate for human infection with STEC among EU member states for many years, reporting 10 times the EU average in 2017. This research looked at recreational waters for the presence of STEC” (The Irish Times, April 19 2020 ).

There is also the similar sounding Morrison Study, also from NUIG, which looked into 'The role of wet wipes and sanitary towels as a source of white microplastic fibres in the marine environment'. This study investigated the unsightly and dangerous impacts of microplastics found in the marine environment washed up on beaches in Galway, such as at the Grattan and The Claddagh. How did this material get there?

While it is considered unlikely that anyone will be infected with Covid-19 when swimming in Galway Bay, there is evidence from Italy telling us that Covid has been detected in sewage! It would obviously be better not to have to run the risk of swimming in polluted waters, if our systems of treatment could be improved.

Media management during a crisis

After a series of media maulings which had been incurred in the mid-noughties by the Galway City Council its poor performance developing better public housing policy, solving traffic gridlock, the N6 roads failure, cryptosporidium, etc, it was decided to give staff a PowerPoint illustrated ‘pep talk’ entitled ‘Leading and Managing Teams at a time of Uncertainty and Crisis’. Insider has seen a copy!

'An Taisce's report said Mutton Island Waste Water Treatment Plant does not have the capacity to treat wastewater from its current catchment area'

Terms used in the presentation included references to urging staff to 'control the message' and to 'keeping close to your adversaries', and recommending them to 'be relentless'.

As Shane Ross told us in his recent book, In Bed with the Blueshirts: “Civil servants are probably the most conservative group of people on the planet”. He described them as being “unfailingly polite, good, decent, God-fearing citizens”. No different here in Galway of course, but as Ross says, “there were a lot of control freaks in the civil service.”

Encouraging staff to 'retain control of the message’ has not been lost at executive level within the current city council, as some troublesome members of Galway City Community Network can readily attest. Attempts by Public Participation Networks community reps to have subjects of interest added to the agendas at SPC meetings last year were being resolutely resisted. This resulted in a protest withdrawal of reps from attendance at these meetings. Insider understands is that ‘mediation’ to resolve issues may be about to get underway.

Mutton Island

The hard hitting An Taisce report - Wastewater Treatment in Galway City Autumn 2020 - was submitted to the Office of Environmental Enforcement at the Environmental Protection Agency in September 2020. The response from the Galway City Council to hearing of this has been confusing to say the least.

On the one hand, it appears to deny problems exist saying An Taisce's claims were “exaggerated", and in terms of An Taisce's claims that the Mutton Island sewage plant was almost at capacity, countered that the plant had another 20 to 30 years life before it reached such a point, adding, “Irish Water is currently carrying out a study on what Galway’s wastewater requirements would be thereafter.”

Insider has read An Taisce's report, and noted the following: “The Mutton Island Waste Water Treatment Plant does not have the capacity to treat wastewater (within the terms of its EPA license ) from its current catchment area and current population (Galway City, Bearna, Oranmore ).”

This needs to be taken seriously, especially given that An Bord Pleanala recently refused a planning application for a development of 343 houses at Rosshill, for the following reasons: “The proposed development would be premature having regards to the existing deficiencies in the wastewater network in the area, specifically the Merlin Park No 1 Pump Station and the period within which this constraint may reasonably be expected to cease. The proposed development would therefore be contrary to the proper planning and sustainability of the area" (ABP 306413, April 20 2020 ).

In a letter sent to the EPA dated July 2009 seeking changes to its license to operate Mutton Island WWTP, City Hall informed the licensing authority that: “The Mutton Island WWTP, on completion of upgrade works [completed in 2015], will have sufficient capacity to cater for the wastewater load from Galway city and environs for a number of years. However, it will not have sufficient capacity to cater for the long-term needs of Galway city and its environs and it is proposed to construct a Galway East Wastewater Treatment Plant for this purpose. The outfall from this wastewater treatment plant would also be to Galway Bay, but to a different part of the Bay and potentially involving different bodies of the Western RBD.”

'Mutton Island may have adequate treatment capacity for the current city population, but that is of no use if the sewer network is incapable of conveying the sewage to it for treatment'

Page 10 of the County Galway Water Services Needs Assessment Report (2009 ), tells us that Galway East WWTP valued at €121,000,000 was to be delivered in 2013. To add to the confusion, at a recent Corporate Policy Group, CPG Joint County/City Councils virtual teams meeting, on November 20 2020, there was mention of water and wastewater infrastructure.

Mr J Cullen gave information to the meeting regarding water and wastewater infrastructure needs in the Galway area. He referred to a Section 85 agreement whereby Galway County Council as the lead authority engaged consultants to undertake assessments and a preliminary report on the overall drainage needs of the Galway area from 2004 onwards. He confirmed that this process reached potential sites selection stage but did not get formal approval from the Department.

Mr Cullen referred to the East Galway Wastewater treatment plant, which is currently not in the Irish Water short term capital planning program. He confirmed that the county council had written to Irish Water in the context of planning adequate provisions for wastewater treatment. He also advised that submissions have been made under the National Planning Framework, National Development Plan and to the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage on this matter. It was noted that the EGWWTP is referenced in both the county and city development plans.

He said that while there is existing capacity at Mutton Island, this is vital infrastructure for the city and county in order to grow and attract investment.

The 'Jack Nicholson moment'?

Mutton Island may indeed have adequate treatment capacity for the current city population, but that is of no use if the sewer network is incapable of conveying the sewage to it for treatment, without pouring untold litres of untreated wastewater into Galway Bay's special area of conservation where hundreds of daily swimmers casually enjoy their recreation.

In all of this confusion, Insider is reminded of one of Jack Nicholsons’ most memorable dramatic roles, in the 1992 film ‘A Few Good Men,’ when acting as Col Nathan R Jessup. Nicholson delivered the crushing line “You can’t Handle the truth.” Of course, as we all know, Tom Cruise won his case!


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