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Explainer: What's going on with Ireland's septic tanks?

The government’s under pressure over its plans to enforce mandatory inspections of septic tanks. So what’s the story?

Image: eutrophication&hypoxia via Flickr

Updated, 15.07

THE THORNY TOPIC of mandatory inspections for Ireland’s septic tanks is back in the news this week, as the Government launches its final push to have the appropriate legislation pushed through the Dáil.

TDs are set to finish debating the Water Services (Amendment) Bill 2011 on Wednesday and Thursday, with the Seanad putting the finishing touches to the Bill on Thursday afternoon.

After that, it’ll be sent off to President Higgins to be signed into law – perhaps with a polite request for it to be signed before the February 3 deadline which the government claims is being enforced upon it.

So what’s the whole idea behind the proposals – and why have they proven so controversial?

A continental problem

It all stems from a set of European Union directives. A directive, put simply, is an instruction to each member state that it must enact laws to achieve a certain goal, but doesn’t prescribe how that should be done.

In this particular case, the directive ordered that governments introduce whatever laws that were necessary to ensure that the disposal of human waste did not have a harmful impact on the environment. The first of the directives was adopted in 1975.

When countries don’t abide by directives, the European Commission – which is the ‘guardian’ of the European Treaties – can then take individual member states to court for their failure to enact Irish law.

This is what triggered the current problems. In October 2009 the European Court of Justice found that Ireland had failed to meet its obligations under the various directives to enforce particular standards in the emissions of human waste.

Put simply, it was Ireland’s network of almost half a million septic tanks – and the possibility that they could be leaking toxins into the ground, and therefore into water streams.

What’s wrong with our tanks?

The frustrating thing about the current case is that there may not necessarily be anything wrong with a large number of septic tanks – the matter at hand is more about making sure they’re all in perfect working order.

Because there hasn’t been any formal register of septic tanks up until now – and no method of inspecting them to see if they’re all in sound working order – it’s impossible to know just how effective Ireland’s tanks are.

A crash course: septic tanks are large drums, of up to 2,000 gallons in capacity, which sit under most rural gardens. In cases where a house isn’t connected to an urban sewage system, toilet waste (which often forms ammonia) is flushed to this tank where a bacterial environment decomposes it.

The bacteria in the tank then breaks down the ammonia, or any other harmful material, into water or other minerals which are more easily and safely absorbed by the ground.

Or, at least, that’s the intention. Because some tanks have existed for decades without any inspection, it’s impossible to know how many tanks might be defective in some way – and are allowing harmful human waste to be pumped into the ground.

The urban-rural divide

There’s two main reasons why many politicians are objecting to these plans. The first is that they believe it’s fundamentally anti-rural.

They explain their argument as follows: during the boom years, as more and more housing estates were built in urban areas around Greater Dublin, their new residents were essentially provided with a link to urban water and sewage systems, free of charge.

Parallel to that, local authorities were given massive amounts of government funding to upgrade their waste disposal systems in order to cater for the growing numbers living on the country’s east coast and other urban areas.

But at the same time, they argue, very little was spent on similar projects in more rural areas – and there was precious little financial support for those building homes in rural areas who had to supply their own sewage disposal units.

Although the government says the mandatory inspections should only cost around €50 each, any septic tanks which fail the test would be liable for replacement – at the potential cost of thousands of euro.

There are also some question marks about the exact nature of the inspection – how invasive or thorough an inspection might be, or whether it will amount to mere ‘box-ticking’.

It’s also particularly rough on the people of Cavan, whose county council has already been voluntarily following European standards for a few years already – meaning newer householders will still be paying for inspections, even though they’re virtually guaranteed to pass them.

Fines, fines everywhere

The other resistance – which is a more political one – concerns the fines that Ireland is likely to face for not following the directive more quickly. The government says the legislation must be enacted before February 3 if Ireland is to avoid fines.

The logic of environment minister Phil Hogan, whose job it is to implement this new ruling, is that February 3 is the deadline by which Ireland must submit a response to the European Court of Justice defending itself against any fines from the ECJ.

That’ll be the last chance for Ireland to assure the court that it’s following the directive, Hogan says – so if the legislation isn’t in place before then, the court proceedings will go ahead without Ireland having a chance to defend itself.

Those fines start off with a lump sum of €2.7 million, with a penalty of €26,173 for every day afterward that Ireland hasn’t fallen in line.

The European Commission has told us – and the opposition parties – that it isn’t quite so straightforward, however. Although Ireland must have its response sent to the ECJ by February 3, the ruling in the matter isn’t expected until at least the summer – and probably not until autumn.

Opposition parties argue that Ireland can’t possibly face fines until the ruling is issued by the ECJ – and that the government is therefore trying to rush the bill through the Oireachtas quicker than it needs to.

This came to a head last week, when the opposition members of the Oireachtas Environment committee tried to stop the Bill from proceeding until they heard expert input from the likes of An Taisce and the Environmental Protection Agency.

They were foiled by the government side, however, who overruled the proposals and kept the bill on its current path.

Read: Government strikes down bid to halt septic tank bill

Read: State won’t face septic tank fines in February despite government claims

Read: Hogan says Fianna Fáil is frightening rural Ireland over septic tank charges

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About the author:

Gavan Reilly

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