Irish Water has been fined €1,000 for contamination of a river and conservation area in Cork which threatened the habitat of an endangered species of mussel.
The utility was before Dublin District Court again following a 13-month adjournment of a prosecution brought by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
It had admitted eight counts of breaching the terms of its licence in connection with levels of ammonia and orthophosphate from a wastewater treatment plant in Boherbue, in Cork which should have been replaced by 2015.
The existing plant discharges into the Brogeen river, a protected conservation area and home to the freshwater pearl mussel.
At the resumed hearing of the case on Monday, Dr John Feehan, an EPA senior wastewater inspector, said the levels were still too high, five times the limit for orthophosphate and eight times for ammonia.
He explained that they were nutrients which were detrimental to river life.
However, Judge Anthony Halpin noted from defence counsel Eoghan Cole that a new treatment plant is expected to be completed in early 2024 at the cost of €9.9 million to Irish Water.
The barrister also stressed that the contamination was also connected to other pressures in the area from agriculture and reforestation.
Asked if other enforcement actions had been taken, the EPA witness said he was not aware, and he also said that would be for the Department of Agriculture.
Judge Halpin noted the guilty plea, the time frame for completion of the new facility, and the budgetary, engineering and planning processes involved.
He remarked that “Irish Water inherited a lot of dysfunctional plants”.
He imposed a €1,000 fine on one charge and marked the remaining seven taken into consideration, adding that Irish Water had put in place significant work to remedy the situation.
Judge Halpin noted from the EPA witness that the mussels could not be relocated.
Earlier, Dr Feehan said building the new facility was the best solution, and it would be able to handle increased volume.
EPA inspector Patrick Chan told the court the freshwater pearl mussel was an important species and now mainly found in Ireland and Scotland, but it was on the verge of extinction.
Mr Chan agreed with prosecution solicitor JP McDowell that the upgrade work deadline was pushed back to 2019 and 2021.
Irish Water was already fined €4,000 for not rebuilding the Boherbue plant on time.
The court heard that the ammonia discharged into the river was not supposed to exceed 0.5mg per litre, as stated in the plant’s licence, but it has been seven times that over the last few years.
The court heard five times the setlimit of orthophosphate discharged into the river. The inspector said the pollutants had consequences for the freshwater pearl mussel, adding that upgrading the treatment plant was necessary to protect the species.
The court heard Irish Water had prioritised capital upgrades in the Cork city area.