Polluted drinking water is an on-going scandal in this State. Despite European Union regulations and Government commitments, the quality of drinking water in public and group water schemes continues to worsen. A report by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found that only 91 per cent of public-water supply samples tested last year, were safe, compared to 60 per cent for group-water schemes. The deterioration ranged from one to four percentage points.

The most frequent forms of pollution involved contamination by human sewage or animal slurry. Rural group-water schemes were particularly affected by animal faeces. This arose from over- stocking and poor farming practices. The excessive use of fluoride by local authorities posed problems. And some water schemes contained excessive levels of nitrate and iron. The list of failures was depressingly familiar. And the EPA observed: “the quality of drinking water is the single most important characteristic as far as the general health of the public is concerned.” The worsening figures may be accounted for by more extensive monitoring by the EPA. In the year 2000, 142,000 tests were conducted on 2,500 supply systems – an increase of one-third over the previous year. The most heavily polluted supplies – group-water schemes – are typically monitored only once a year and often on a three-year cycle. This is all very unsatisfactory. And the EPA has referred to a “disturbing feature” whereby some local authorities have withheld drinking water data from the agency.

Where serious water contamination was discovered by the EPA, the response by the local authorities was frequently inadequate. In 36 per cent of cases involving animal and human excrement, the water supply was not re-tested within seven days, indicating a lack of urgency. The quality of group-water schemes is expected to improve through the investment of about (pounds) 400m under the National Development Plan.

Fewer people are going hungry in this green and pleasant land. But many children and senior citizens fall sick from polluted water supplies. The European Commission has threatened legal action through the Court of Justice in Luxembourg because of the failure of successive governments to address the situation. Safe drinking water is not – and should not become – a luxury.