The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been criticised for accepting the quality of drinking water in Kilkenny as satisfactory even though it was found to contain aluminium contaminations more than 100 times the EU limit.

A report for the European Parliament’s Petitions Committee, which sent two of its members on a fact-finding mission to Ireland early last month, said the EPA’s conclusion was based on an inadequate number of samples.

“The danger of excessive aluminium in the water supply, especially when linked to excesses in fluoride [also found in Kilkenny], is recognised by the WHO as having a potential link to brain lesions and Alzheimer’s disease,” the report said.

Its authors, Mr Felipe Camisn Asensio MEP and Ms Margot Kessler MEP, recommended that the EPA should obtain its findings on water quality from more independent sources than the local authority and publish them without delay.

The two MEPs said the European Commission “should take urgent measures in order to ensure compliance of the Irish authorities with the provisions of the Drinking Water Directive, in particular as regards Kilkenny and Carraroe, Co Galway.”

In Carraroe, local petitioners had complained that untreated sewage was seeping into their drinking water supplies, while plans by Galway County Council to deal with the problem “have gone from one delay to the next”, as the report put it.

“Given what most people think they know about Ireland, one would imagine that water would be the least of the country’s problems,” the MEPs said. Yet judging by the number of petitions received from Irish citizens, it was a major problem.

They confirmed that there were “very serious and persistent current problems with public water schemes”, as documented by petitioners, and said they remained to be convinced that intentions to deal with these problems “will, in fact, be realised”.

The MEPs said the situation “is made worse” by the fact that local authorities here levy no taxes on households for the distribution of water, while the revenue they raised from commercial rates was insufficient to upgrade treatment plants.

Despite a 1998 consultants’ report recommending E7 million in improvements to Kilkenny’s main treatment plant, the borough council admitted that only E420,000 had since been spent; the rest was to come from the National Development Plan.

The MEPs noted that the local health centre is obliged to filter its water while the Smithwicks’ brewery in Kilkenny is using alternative groundwater sources. “Why is water from the River Nore used at all given its level of contamination?” they asked.

The borough council told the MEPs that it was planning to build storage tanks for water from the Nore next year prior to its treatment at the Troyswood plant. This would allow the water to settle and facilitate its subsequent filtering.

However, “in spite of evidence of serious contamination”, the MEPs said the number of tests carried out in the State has been diminishing over recent years.

At present, “the EPA has a greater tendency to defend the position of local authorities which supply it with most of its information than its own integrity as an independent agency which is supposed to be acting to safeguard the population”.

The EPA yesterday denied that it regarded drinking water in Kilkenny as “satisfactory”. It would not condone any breach of standards, “a point repeatedly made in successive reports by the EPA on drinking water quality”.

The agency pointed out that responsibility for public water supplies rested with the local authorities, while its function was to produce an annual report on drinking water quality.

Problems with water quality had been “clearly documented” by the EPA in successive reports, a statement said, adding that the agency had recently urged local authorities to publish monthly monitoring results.

Though it was “satisfied with the overall quality of results submitted to it by local authorities”, the agency started to audit drinking water production in 2001 to check on all the monitoring data they were submitting and to review their approach.