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Pollution and Baby-talk

What is there to be usefully said about the pollution of the Galway city public drinking water supply?

It is useful to ask:

a) why and how it happened;

b) who, if anyone, is responsible as an executive;

c) who, if anyone, is legally responsible;


Ever since 1832, at least, it has been recognised that the safety of the public drinking water supply cannot be taken for granted and requires executive action to deliver it. That was the occasion of an outbreak of cholera in London, traced to several street pumps, all of which were drawing water from water sources polluted by sewage. The germ theory of disease was unknown, but the clusters of deaths corresponded with use of the pumps.

The Victorians invested in large public sanitary schemes, securing safe public drinking water and removing sewage to treatment plants or distant outfalls, e.g. to the sea. Dublin city, for instance, is mainly supplied by the Poulaphuca reservoir, a man-made lake near the village of Blessington in County Wicklow.

In addition, the city has a sewage pumping station in Ringsend, near the mouth of the river Liffey. Station or no station, no citizen of Dublin was under the illusion that the Liffey was a source of drinking water; its smell and colour of up to twenty years ago ensured that.

Galway city, it transpires, relied on the substantial lakes, Lough Corrib and Lough Mask for its drinking water. These are natural lakes with natural rivers feeding into them and, of course, the Corrib river draining out through Galway city.

No harm in that.

The problem lay in the attitude to sewage; it was discharged into the two lakes and their feeder rivers. The principal polluter was Galway County Council. (This is not a surprise; Ireland’s local authorities are almost invariably the most substantial polluters of the environment and, ironically, have until very recently been the guardians of the environment).

The local authorities are, essentially, not self-funding. Under Ireland’s centralised form of government, the central government, in the form of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, is the source of funding for the activities of the local authorities. It is also the originator of legislation to delegate powers and responsibility to the local authorities. The executive function in local authorities is, in essence, discharged by employed managers rather than by elected members. These managers could therefore, find they were obliged to make plans but not be furnished with the funding.

This is what happened in Galway. The Department “allocatedâ€? funding for new sewage treatment plants for the city drinking water, but failed to allocate ancillary funding to enable it to be drawn down and spent.

Events like this has led to a situation where there is no objective standard by which to make judgements about the quality of local authority managers or, indeed, local authorities. They might be excellent or they might be fit to be fired. In the particular instance, the fact that the officials knew that 30% of the water was vulnerable to almost any untoward event and that they then mixed that 30% with the remaining “securedâ€? water does not inspire confidence in their competence, funding aside. Treatment of the 30% consisted, largely it seems, in the removal of solids, presumably meaning faecal matter, toilet roll and condoms.


Clearly, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Galway City Council; Galway County Council and the managers of each council carry executive responsibility. The greater share of responsibility lies on the Minister. The neglect of public drinking water supplies is not confined to Galway; it exists as a widespread problem. The Minister and his party colleagues do themselves no favours by trying, as they have done, to ascribe the disaster to “natural causesâ€? such as winter flooding and using baby-talk such as “blame game” to distract from their failures.

The Environmental Protection Agency has had a limited role (limited by the Government of which the Minister is a part) in monitoring drinking water. It has now, with many people ill, expressed its dismay at the quality of public drinking water. Previously it complacently reported of sanitary authority public schemes, that 99.8% of such supplies are compliant with “…the E. Coli standard…”.

What was that?


The question implies a responsibility to someone. The “someoneâ€? is every injured person falling ill from drinking the polluted water. Essentially, the enforcement of drinking water standards has been privatised. While the remedy will not immediately deliver safe drinking water into the future, it will surely do so indirectly.

Galway City Council is legally responsible. Ireland has a legal obligation to ensure the availability of clean wholesome drinking water for the public. Ireland transposed that responsibility into Irish law by assigning it, by statute, to the sanitary authorities (who are in fact the local authorities).

To release polluted water into the public drinking water system was a public nuisance. Galway City Council is responsible for that public nuisance.

To collect polluted water in the public drinking water supply system and to allow it to escape was a breach, by Galway City Council, of the rule in Rylands v Fletcher.


  1. Well said. Very nice assessment of local government model in Ireland. Doesn’t just affect water unfortunately, just take a look at the havoc in Meath.

    It beggars belief that the government that is committed to growing the country by 5% p.a. over the next 5 years allows this to happen.

    Is there no realisation of the value of our international image in terms of foreign investment and tourism to our economic growth.

    This incident was covered in the Guardian on Tuesday so it is getting international exposure,,2058810,00.html

    Does a brave local authority need to take a stand and declare bankruptcy or is a major public safety emergency needed to occur before something is done?

  2. Excellent analysis.

    My memory of my tort lectures back in my Business and Legal Studies days is very vague but isn’t Rylands a rule imposing strict liability on anyone who holds a noxious substance on their land and permits it to escape?

    Does the failure of the Department to allocate the necessary ancilliary funding to make the main funding usable not raise an issue?

  3. An excellent article, but when will politicians take the pollution of our lakes seriously? On the day of the election I was talking to a lady here in Galway about having to drink bottled water. She replied “Well, it’s not so bad at least we have the money for it, and haven’t we our health! What more do we want?” I can only guess who she was voting for.
    People have got so complacent

  4. Regarding the rule in Rylands v Fletcher is an interesting point, however consider the ruling Blackburn j said in the lower court.”that any person who for his own purposes brings onto land….anything likely to do mischief if it escapes must keep it at his peril”. It goes on to state about being prima facie answerable for the damage.Is there an question of forseeability in that the the council did not know the water was polluted, but then again look at the opposition by the state to the nitrates directive for clues!

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