Irish Water received 29 reports in Cork of people suspecting illness from water consumption in 2022

Irish Water received 29 reports in Cork of people suspecting illness from water consumption in 2022

Image of discoloured water flowing from tap at home on South Douglas Road from October 2022. Image provided by resident

IRISH WATER received 29 reports last year from people in Cork city complaining of illnesses suspected to have been caused by water consumption, compared to just one such complaint in 2020 and two in 2021.

In the months after the water utility company, which is now called Uisce Éireann, opened its Lee Road water treatment plant last summer, the company became flooded with complaints about water quality in Cork city.

After it opened its new facility in July 2022, Irish Water was inundated with calls as brown and orange discoloured water began to flow from taps in multiple locations across the city.

The number of complaints about water quality in Cork rose from 20 per week in the Lee Road plant’s first week of operation to 119 complaints in one week in August, which represented an increase of 495%.

In the four months after the Lee Road plant opened, the company received 610 complaints from residents across the city about discoloured water.

The scale of complaints is highlighted in a 178-page document released to Socialist Party TD for Cork North-Central, Mick Barry, on foot of Freedom of Information requests.

In October of last year, after a series of questions from The Echo, Irish Water admitted that it had been responsible for the discolouration of at least some of the city’s drinking supply.

The company said an adjustment of the chemicals used in water preparation had caused rusty sediment to be stripped from the inside of Cork city’s century-old water mains, resulting in discoloured water pouring out of household taps.

Irish Water did not respond when asked in October why it had waited until after The Echo had asked before admitting it had caused the discolouration.

Amongst the correspondence released under FOI is an email, dated 22 August 2022, from Irish Water informing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of an increase in complaints of discoloured water.

The mail notes that water from the new Lee Road plant had entered the supply on July 29 and adds: “There is the potential that process changes, particularly the change in the pH corrective chemical in use, i.e. from Lime to Caustic, may be contributing to the problem and causing the water to become more corrosive”.

The company now known as Uisce Éireann has insisted repeatedly that discoloured water does not pose a health and safety risk, while at the same time warning people not to drink discoloured water and issuing assurances that water is safe to drink if taps are kept on until the water runs clear.

The FOI reply issued to TD Mick Barry shows that various attempts have been made since last August to resolve the issue of discoloured water in Cork city, among them repairing the pH meter at the Lee Road plant, adjusting the pH level at the plant, and instigating localised flushing of rusty sediment from the system.

However, none of these efforts appear to have solved the ongoing problem of water discolouration in the city, and Mr Barry told The Echo that while Uisce Éireann had managed to make temporary improvements over recent months, the number of complaints about water quality had spiked with 55 complaints in late September and 86 in late November.

Mick Barry of People Before Profit-Solidarity. Photo: Damien Storan.
Mick Barry of People Before Profit-Solidarity. Photo: Damien Storan.

“The new Lee Road water treatment plant was designed and built and is currently being operated by a private company which is operating on a for profit basis,” Mr Barry said.

Mr Barry said the company have "fulfilled all the terms of their contract" but added that it seemed to him that Uisce Éireann was not putting any great pressure on the contractor to go beyond the terms of their contract and to resolve what he termed “the chemical imbalance issue”.

“This seems to me to be a story which contains lessons about the perils of privatisation and the pitfalls of State agencies which fail to aggressively pursue what is in the public interest,” he said.

Mr Barry said it was his estimate that about 30% of the work of Cork City Council's water service workers over the past six months had been spent flushing rust out of the water supply.

“This is essentially a firefighting exercise conducted by the water department. Localised flushing tends to sort the problem out for a week or two before trouble starts building up in the system again. A huge amount of time has been spent flushing out rust, time which could have been spent improving and modernising the water supply in the city,” Mr Barry said.

Asked for a comment, Uisce Éireann said it provides clean safe drinking water to over 87,000 people in Cork City every day from the Lee Road Water Treatment Plant (WTP).

“All water leaving the Lee Road WTP is monitored 24/7 and tested to ensure it is 100% compliant. The treatment process at the plant is in line with best practice global standards.

“Whilst the improvement works have caused some temporary localised issues in some areas, enquiries and complaints responded to by Uisce Éireann have been decreasing to a low level since January 2023 (representing less than 0.1% of customers per week). Every query received is investigated and, where intervention is required, it is addressed immediately.” 

Uisce Éireann also said it has always advised customers not to drink discoloured water. It said that three multi-million-euro projects are underway under the Cork City Water Supply Scheme and added: “Uisce Éireann apologies for the current inconvenience caused by temporary water discolouration and we are grateful to communities affected for their continued patience during the improvement works.”

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