Irish taxpayers are likely to be stung for millions of euro in penalties after the European Commission announced that it is to take legal action against the Irish Government. Ireland stands accused of failing to ensure that urban waste water in Shannon and 37 other towns, cities and settlements, is adequately collected and treated to prevent serious risks to human health and the environment.

In Shannon, serious deficiencies at the ‘decrepit’ wastewater treatment plant have been known about for many years, at least as far back as 2004 when Clare County Council took over responsibility for the town from Shannon Development. Speaking in Dáil Éireann shortly after the takeover, Deputy Pat Breen stated, “if Shannon is to continue to grow and prosper, major improvements in water and sewerage facilities will be needed. Estimates show that €30 million will be required to upgrade these services. A total of €10 million will be required to upgrade the Castle Lake waterworks and €20 million will be required for the Tradaree Point effluent treatment plant and other associated sewerage systems within Shannon and Bunratty.”

In 2013 problems at the wastewater treatment plant led to a health scare after a number of people fell sick from air pollution that became known in official circles as the “Shannon odour”. This was investigated by the Environmental Protection Agency which dispelled rumours that the smell had come from companies on the industrial estate. The EPA verified that the Tradaree wastewater treatment plant was generating significant hydrogen sulphide odours and was indeed the primary source of the odour. The agency set out a number of actions up to and including a major redesign and upgrade of the plant. Just a few weeks ago Irish Water said it is spending €3 million on improvement works at the plant to “help meet the wastewater services needs for domestic and commercial customers in Shannon Town and the surrounding area now and into the future.”

Under EU law (Council Directive 91/271/EEC), towns and cities are required to collect and treat their urban waste water, as untreated waste water can put human health at risk and pollute lakes, rivers, soil and coastal and groundwater. The European Commission is now taking Ireland to the EU’s Court of Justice on the basis that member states had until the end of 2000 to ensure appropriate treatment of wastewater from large agglomerations of more than 15 000, and until the end of 2005 for discharges from medium-sized agglomerations and discharges to freshwater and estuaries from small agglomerations.

The Commission noted that it had initiated the infringement against Ireland in September 2013, followed by warnings in September 2015 and September 2016.