Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 30 July 2014

Northern Ireland Water never far from controversy

Northern Ireland Water has been dogged by controversy since it was formed in 2007.

Formerly an executive agency within the Department for Regional Development, when it was known as Northern Ireland Water Service, it became a Government-owned company on April, 1 2007 — thus losing its Crown immunity.

That loss of immunity sparked repercussions almost immediately as the company was detected polluting the Colin Glen River and River Lagan the same month with untreated sewage from Dunmurry Wastewater Treatment Works and was convicted the following February and fined £100.

That was the first of a number of prosecutions, including a £2,500 fine after the NIW sewage pumping station on the Ballynahatty Road in Omagh left a tributary of the Drumragh River polluted with sewage fungus.

The company was also fined £5,000 for polluting the Glenavy River with raw sewage in October 2007 and was prosecuted after untreated sewage was found discharging from a manhole cover at the corner of Saintfield Sports Club, and running over the ground into a tributary of the River Quoile.

Last year the company was fined £750 after the Berry Stream in Kilkeel was found “grossly contaminated” with sewage-related debris.

The company has also been rocked repeatedly by numerous leadership changes in the short time since its formation.

NI Water’s first chief executive Katherine Bryan left in 2008 in the wake of a major company miscalculation of its future revenue.

She was succeeded for a period by NI Water chairman Chris Mellor, who doubled up for a while as acting chief executive.

In the summer of 2009 he went back to being chairman on the arrival of Laurence MacKenzie as chief executive.

Mr Mellor was sacked as chairman earlier this year by Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy over the awarding of NIW contracts without competitive tendering rules being followed.

These contractual breaches pre-dated Mr MacKenzie’s time at the firm, but he has also been beset by controversy linked to the handling of the saga and to boardroom frictions.

The company provides 600m-plus litres of clean water a day for almost 1.7m people as well as 134m cubic metres of wastewater every year, and employs an estimated 1,400 staff.

It is responsible for 26,500km of |water mains and 14,500km of sewerage mains.

Northern Ireland Water and Scottish Water are the only UK water companies not to have been privatised.

Since NI Water was set up it has been the focus of a widespread public campaign opposing the introduction of water charges for domestic consumers, with organisers claiming water services are already paid for through the rates system.

However, the Government has challenged this, saying Northern Ireland pays less per person in rates than customers in England, Scotland and Wales do for their combined council tax and water charges, and that extra investment is needed to upgrade infrastructure, including the Victorian-era sewers.

Earlier this year NI Water completed a £160m stormwater management project called the Belfast Sewer Project, which aimed to improve water quality in the River Lagan and Blackstaff River while cutting the risk of flooding in the inner city.

This had unexpected repercussions in late 2009 when work on the main tunnel disturbed a subterranean bubble, which rose through the ground and caused a massive hole to appear in Cromac Street in Belfast.

The company has also undertaken an ongoing £100m programme to upgrade more than 1,000km of water mains across Northern Ireland and has embarked on the £45m North Coast Water Treatment Scheme to revamp the region’s sewerage network.

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