Raw sewage still being discharged into river in Athlone

Raw sewage continues to be pumped into the River Shannon and the canal at any of 19 locations in the Athlone area during heavy rain, storms or flooding events.

The issue was part of a successful prosecution by the European Commission against Ireland this year when the Court of Justice of the European Union in March last found that Athlone's wastewater treatment system, and those of a number of other Irish towns, was in breach of the requirements of European Directives.

Large parts of Athlone's existing network are based on combined sewers which is a sewage collection system designed to also collect surface water runoff.

Combined sewers can cause serious water pollution problems during combined sewer overflow (CSO) events when wet weather flows exceed the sewage treatment plant capacity.

In order to protect the wastewater treatment plant from being flooded, the contents of the combined sewers, a mixture of storm water and sewage, are released into the Shannon and the Athlone Canal during heavy downpours.

During the European court case this year, Ireland admitted that there were 300 such spill incidents in Athlone in 2011 involving a volume of 144 million litres of wastewater being discharged into the Shannon without treatment.

The Environment Protection Agency has instructed Irish Water in Athlone to remove non-compliant CSOs and to make retained CSOs compliant with EU directives.

The issue has been prominent on the local authority agenda for many years, with Westmeath County Council, at one stage, indicating it would be resolved by 2010. 

The European Commission had initially given Ireland a 2005 deadline to resolve the nationwide problem of raw sewage being discharged into rivers.

Wastewater treatment is now the responsibility of Irish Water, which in a statement to the Westmeath Independent, confirmed there are 19 storm overflow points which discharge into the Shannon.

It said it is “committed to the delivery of the Athlone Main Drainage project which will reduce the risk of sewer flooding in Athlone and will also reduce the number of storm water overflows into the River Shannon.”

“Tendering is expected to commence in the coming weeks. Separately works to reduce groundwater from entering into the sewer pipes and manholes will commence in 2020. This will involve survey work followed by sewer rehabilitation work, using mainly trenchless technology. 

The utility company said it had also invested €5.6m to increase the capacity of the Athlone wastewater treatment plant from 30,000 to 36,000 Population Equivalent (PE).These works were completed in June 2018.

Irish Water secured planning permission in 2017 for a major overhaul and upgrade of both the wastewater treatment works and collection network serving Athlone.

The most notable feature of the plan are two new sewer tunnels to be built under the Shannon crossing from west to east.

A 235-metre tunnel is to be constructed under the River Shannon linking Burgess Park to the west bank of the river at The Big Meadow.

And a separate 100m tunnel is also planned to convey sewage from the Quay Road on the west bank to a new sewer in The Strand car park on the eastern side of the river.

The investment would also involve the installation of storm water holding tanks to contain excess stormwater and return it to the sewer network after the rainfall stopped.

Irish Water indicated at the time that the plan, known as the Athlone Networks Contract Part 2, would involve a €30m investment.

Separately, last year, Irish Water told the EPA it planned to have the key parts of this work completed by the summer of 2022.

In the 2017 planning application to Westmeath County Council, Irish Water said: "The completed scheme will eliminate surcharging and out of sewer flooding which occurs following heavy rain or storm events."

The combination of the proposed network upgrades and elimination of the non-compliant CSOs will remove the risk to water quality in the River Shannon from these sources, Irish Water also said.

In its planning application lodged recently, Irish Water said the new tunnel under the Shannon was necessary "to transfer sewage flows from a large part of the sewerage network serving the western side of Athlone, to the eastern side of the river for forward pumping and treatment at the existing Golden Island Wastewater Treatment Plant".

It said it would replace an existing 'siphon sewer' which runs under the river, is located in a flood plain of the river and which it described as "a critical but problematic part of the network".