More than 50 people are ill in Ireland after a failure at a treatment plant led to contaminated water being released to the public.

The Health and Service Executive (HSE) is investigating an outbreak in the town of Gorey in North Wexford. There have been 52 confirmed illnesses linked to the incident, including cases of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC), with a number of hospitalizations.

At Gorey water treatment plant in County Wexford, there was a power outage and a chlorine pump failure resulting in water leaving the plant and entering the public supply without the appropriate level of disinfection for five days beginning Aug. 19. This incident was not reported to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and HSE until Aug. 26.

Authorities said the delay in reporting prevented a timely risk assessment of the impact on drinking water quality and time to allow measures that could have protected public health.

EPA conducted two audits at Gorey water treatment plant on Sept. 7 and 16 to investigate the incident and to identify what corrective actions needed to be taken.

Public apology
Niall Gleeson, managing director at Irish Water, said all measures would be taken to ensure there would be no re-occurrence of drinking water issues.

“Irish Water also continues to consult with HSE on the outbreak of illnesses in Gorey and with Wexford County Council on a program of works at the water treatment plant. We would like to apologize to customers for the delay in communicating the incident and the water treatment plant failing to meet the appropriate level of disinfection,” he said.

The EPA also identified a problem at another site at Ballymore Eustice. This is the largest water treatment plant in the country, serving 877,000 consumers in the greater Dublin area.

The plant produced unsafe drinking water for up to 10 hours on Aug. 20 and 21 because of loss of the Cryptosporidium treatment barrier compounded by inadequate disinfection. This incident was not reported by Irish Water to the EPA or HSE until Sept. 1.

Audit findings
EPA visited the Ballymore Eustace site on Sept. 9. The agency said investigations at the plants revealed the “abject failure” of managerial oversight, operational control and responsiveness by Irish Water and local authorities in their respective roles to deliver safe and secure drinking water. Other unreported incidents were also uncovered by EPA inspectors during both audits.

Delays in reporting meant that there was no opportunity to issue boil water notices to consumers, which would have helped protect public health until issues at the plants were resolved.

Both plants have now returned to normal operation since the incidents, and water is safe to drink, according to the EPA.

Laura Burke, EPA director general, said protection of public health is of paramount importance when providing drinking water supplies.

“It is unacceptable that delays in notifying the EPA and HSE meant that approximately 900,000 consumers were left unaware of the risks they faced and did not have the opportunity to protect themselves. Immediate actions must be taken by Irish Water and the local authorities to ensure these failures do not arise again,” she said.

Eamon Gallen, general manager at Irish Water, said: “In both these incidents Irish Water and our partners in local authorities fell short of the standards we set ourselves. In both instances, late notification to Irish Water of issues relating to the disinfection process at the plants, potentially put public health at risk.”

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