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Water Supply Difficulties: Ards Peninsula

Regional Development – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:00 pm on 20th April 2009.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP 3:00 pm, 20th April 2009

3. asked the Minister for Regional Development whether he is aware of water-supply difficulties in the Ards Peninsula in the past few weeks, particularly the recent incident that left many homes without water for four to five days; and to outline the reasons for these disruptions and what action he is taking to ensure that this problem is fully resolved.          (AQO 2488/09)

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I have been advised by Northern Ireland Water that the disruption to water supplies in the Ards Peninsula that occurred on Saturday 21 March 2009 was caused by a major defect in the mid Ards trunk water main, which supplies service reservoirs in the area. Problems with air in the water-main network hindered the prompt recovery of the system. Nevertheless, the supply was restored to the majority of customers on Monday 23 March 2009 and to the remaining customers on Tuesday 24 March 2009.

Northern Ireland Water (NIW) is currently undertaking a review of the incident together with any other associated problems with the water-distribution system in the area. In view of the frequency of the interruptions to the supply, NIW is investigating the possibility of implementing further infrastructure improvements to improve the continuity of water supply. I asked the acting chief executive of NIW to write to the Member when the outcome of the review is known. I express my regret and sympathy to the people who were affected by the disruption. It is my sincere hope that that will be the last of the problems that they encounter.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP

On behalf of the people of the Ards Peninsula, I accept the Minister’s apology. It was absolutely chaotic that farmers were unable to use water to feed their cattle and sheep; that young mothers were unable to put water in milk for their newborn babies; that elderly people were unable to make a cup of tea; that people were unable to flush their toilets; and that they were unable to wash, shower or wash their clothes. In the middle of all that, there was no system whatsoever for the distribution of bottled water.

When the taps were turned on afterwards, the water in this bottle is the water that came out. It is not vodka, and it is not lemon-flavoured.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

I remind Mr Shannon that Members are not permitted to use visual aids. The Member should ask a question.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP

Will the Minister assure the people of the Ards Peninsula that a system will be put in place to address the continual breakages, and that there will be a back-up plan that will be better organised? Will he also assure us that, in future, there will be no 50% supply of water to the houses in the Ards Peninsula, which we have endured since Christmas?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I accept what the Member is saying about the difficulties that the breakdown in supply caused to the people of the Ards Peninsula. As with any major incident that occurs, NIW carries out a review of the effectiveness of its response. There are obviously issues regarding its response as well as the breakdown. Any lessons that are learned should be put to good use to ensure that subsequent responses are improved upon.

NIW accepts that there is an ongoing problem and that major work may be required to ensure that a disruption does not occur again. A review is being carried out, and NIW will be in touch with the Member and any other elected representatives in the area to inform them of the outcome.

Photo of Kieran McCarthy Kieran McCarthy Alliance

I will show this picture to the Minister.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

Visual aids are not permitted.

Photo of Kieran McCarthy Kieran McCarthy Alliance

That is water that should be going through people’s taps, and Alderman Shannon outlined the problem. That water was on the road. Indeed, it occurred on a dozen roads on the Ards Peninsula. Alderman Shannon said that the situation cannot be allowed to continue any longer. The system must be repaired. Northern Ireland Water acknowledges that there is a big problem, but it needs funding to improve the system so that that does not happen again. Not only do we have to speak on behalf of the residents, but we have to speak on behalf of businesses.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

The Member must ask a question.

Photo of Kieran McCarthy Kieran McCarthy Alliance 3:15 pm, 20th April 2009

We are trying to encourage tourism — we have caravan parks and all sorts of things — so we must ensure that funding is in place —

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

Minister, do you wish to reply to that answer? [Laughter.]

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

Sometimes, that is a very attractive proposition. [Laughter.] Again, as I said to the previous Member who spoke, I deeply regret what happened, and I know that NIW is looking carefully at that, what action is required, and what action is required of it by way of response.

The Member said that NIW requires money for investment, but it already has a substantial capital budget. Of course, the company is undertaking a significant catch-up exercise due to underinvestment over a number of decades. Nonetheless, a substantial capital budget is available. NIW must identify areas in which breakdowns are commonplace, and those areas must then be given priority treatment. As I said, there is an ongoing review, and Members will be informed of its outcomes and of the actions that will be undertaken as a result.

Photo of Leslie Cree Leslie Cree UUP

I am sorry, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I do not have any props. The Minister will be aware of the recent water-quality scare in the greater Belfast area. Is he content that correct procedures were adopted? Should that sort of thing happen again, will the Minister guarantee that customer safety will be balanced against customer convenience?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

Although customer convenience is important, customer safety is always the number one priority. With respect to the event to which the Member referred, an analysis was carried out on routine samples taken from the Dunore Point water treatment works over the weekend of 11 and 12 April and a potential quality issue was identified. It takes approximately 24 hours to analyse samples.

Early on Tuesday 14 April, when the results suggested that there might be a problem with water quality, NI Water, in consultation with a consultant in communicable disease control, issued a precautionary boil-water notice. The notice was issued through the press, media and Internet, and homes that could potentially have been affected in the greater Belfast area and in Antrim and Down were alerted.

Subsequent water samples, which were tested by NIW at an independent laboratory later on Tuesday, all returned satisfactory results, and that confirmed that the water supply was safe to drink. In consultation with the health authorities late on Tuesday evening, the boil-water notice was lifted. NIW staff worked through the night to remedy the problem.

Nevertheless, I have asked officials in the Drinking Water Inspectorate to investigate why the initial analytical results were incorrect and to identify what steps can be taken to ensure that the risk of a reoccurrence is minimised. I sympathise with all those who were affected, and I regret any disruption or inconvenience that the incident caused. However, I am sure that everyone agrees that when there is even a minimal risk to the health and well-being of the public, it is sensible to take precautions, such as issuing a temporary boil-water notice.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

I refer Members to page 85 in the Assembly Companion, which refers to the use of visual aids. No visual aids are allowed in the Chamber.