People are “getting ill” after swimming at Northern Ireland beaches and “it’s time something was done about it”.
That’s the damning warning from Surfers Against Sewage who have criticised the Government’s bathing water testing regime.
We met the ocean activists at Co Down ’s Ballyholme beach, which is rated Northern Ireland’s dirtiest bathing water by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.
While they described the classification as “very disappointing” - Surfers Against Sewage say they are even more disappointed at the lack of transparency and ‘real time’ information on the state of all waters people swim in.
NI Water has admitted it doesn’t keep a record of the dates, times or amount of raw sewage and untreated waste water spilling into our rivers, lakes and seas.
While DAERA doesn’t provide information on the times it takes samples or provide that information to the public daily.
Surfers Against Sewage Northern Ireland regional rep, Declan McMenamin, said: “It’s time something was done about it.. the overspills from NI Water and the poor water quality in Northern Ireland.
“It’s up to NI Water, DAERA and those involved to start taking it more seriously because people are getting ill.
“We want answers,” he added.
“The current system for water quality testing doesn’t cover enough months within the year - it only goes from June to September. There are only 26 beaches that are tested.”
Dip at Ballintoy leads to serious Strep A infection
Belfast woman Lara Magee fell seriously ill with a Strep A throat infection the day after swimming in the blue pool at Ballintoy Harbour - which is not water quality tested.
The 29-year-old believes “the public toilets discharge into that pool” - a problem Causeway Coast & Glens Council says it is “unaware of” but will check.
Lara added: “I had three rounds of antibiotics and it didn’t go away and then continued into a whole range of other symptoms that materialised after that.
“I was a healthy 20-something year old. I had never been sick in my life and then I got extremely sick very quickly.
“We are affecting [the environment] and now it’s affecting us in terrifying ways.”
DAERA tests its 26 designated ‘bathing waters’ for Escherichia coli (E-Coli) and Intestinal enterococci (IE) under the Bathing Water Regulations (NI) 2008.
Despite swimmers now taking to the water all year round, samples are taken just 20 times from June 1 to September 15 with the outcome posted on notice boards at those sites, sometimes over a week later.
According to the department just 16 or 17 results were recorded for each beach in 2022 as some of the July/August 2022 samples had to be recalled because of “quality control failure” at their lab.
But even when waters are tested, there is no guarantee they are safe.
Figures released by the Department for Infrastructure in November 2021 following an Assembly Question from Green Party NI’s Rachel Woods, suggested over 7m tonnes of raw sewage are discharged into our rivers and seas every year.
NI Water tell us those figures were ‘modelled’ on rainfall, which washes everything from the dirt on our streets to agricultural run-off into waterways.
We asked for the dates and times overspills saw untreated sewage and waste water enter waterways in 2022 in a Freedom of Information request.
But a spokesperson said: “NI Water does not keep a record of the number of occasions, duration, or actual volumes of overflows into public waterways from its sewerage system.”
Surfers Against Sewage rep Aine McAuley said: “We just don’t understand how can beaches be achieving ‘excellent’ water status when at the same time we are getting individual reports through the Department for Infrastructure that [NI Water] released seven million tonnes of raw sewage.
“That reading was taken over an average of five years, which if you break it down is over 570 spills in a five year period - an estimate of one every three days. If raw sewage is getting poured into our beaches every three days - how is the status of our beaches ‘excellent’?”
Three beaches in Portrush, where Aine lives, were rated ‘excellent’ for swimming in DAERA’s latest bathing report.
But Aine says she has “been in the sea when there have been spills up in Portrush”.
“I have seen with my own eyes toilet roll coming out of the sewage pipes next to the lifeboat station. I have seen sanitary towels floating around the harbour,” she added.
“The testing is like is a pile of crisp packets get dumped in the rainforest and then five days later, after heavy wind has blown them all away, that’s when the government come and test to see whether there’s any rubbish in the rainforest or not.
“Swimmers are using it everyday and if there is a spill at 3am in the morning and they are going for their morning swim at 7am, they need to know otherwise people are getting sick [and] wildlife is being destroyed.”
Surfers Against Sewage want more transparency from Government on the times and dates of sewage spills and when they are testing bathing waters.
They would also like to see the testing season extended and swimmers provided with up to date information so they can make informed decisions.
“Sandycove in Dublin has a digital screen which shows you when it was last tested, the quality, how bad it is,” explained Declan. “That’s the information that needs to be published by DAERA... and NI Water need to be more transparent on when there is a spill or discharge because they are not.”
Aine added: “We all know how much we value our oceans and we are using them everyday, so we need to have ratings which reflect an everyday situation.
“That information is just not there, it’s not being done. When we get that information, then we get accountability.”
DAERA said they are considering an extension of the current bathing season.
NI Water said they “will develop its use of EDM (Event Duration Monitors) technologies and embed the necessary verification systems” to “establish fit for purpose databases and real-time dashboard reporting systems” on spills by 2027.
Every one of Northern Ireland’s 571 water bodies fail to meet good overall status under the 2017 Water Framework Directive when their chemical and ecological status is combined.
The list of waters assessed includes 450 rivers, 21 lakes, 25 transitional/coastal water bodies and 75 groundwater bodies.
In complete contrast, 19 bathing waters were rated ‘excellent’, five ‘good quality’ and two ‘sufficient’ in the same year.
Water Framework Directive ratings rely on a range of chemical and ecological tests while bathing waters are checked for just E-Coli and Intestinal enterococci.
We asked DAERA how we can be failing on overall water quality, while bathing waters can still achieve excellent status.
A DAERA spokesperson said: “The classification of bathing waters and freshwaters are controlled by separate pieces of legislation.
“Bathing water quality, defined under bathing water legislation refers to the microbiological quality of the water.
“The Water Environment (Water Framework Directive) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2017 (WFD) classification considers a suite of parameters for ecological and chemical status, including nutrients.
“The bathing water results cannot be therefore directly correlated to the WFD results.”
Surfers Against Sewage in Northern Ireland are calling on the government to do what they can to do more to protect our rivers and seas for both people and biodiversity.