Dysfunctional septic banks, for all the financial chaos they cause, don’t kill people. Dysfunctional septic tanks, on the other hand, can and do. E.coli – a nasty bug thrown up by many faulty septic tanks – most affects the very young and the very old. Ireland has up to 500,000 septic tanks. Private group-water schemes supply around 210,000 people, or 5% of the population. Close to one third of private group water schemes are contaminated by E.coli while more than half fail to meet the standards on coliform bacteria. Public water supplies score better, but a great many are running into problems due to the overuse of disinfectants – and the explanation for this excessive chemical use is pollution getting into the water in the first place. Septic tanks aren’t uniquely responsible for E.coli and other harmful bacteria. Agricultural pollution plays a major role too. But leaking septic tanks are a central part of the problem. Just as agricultural pollution is being tackled in Ireland under the EU’s Nitrates Directive, septic tanks fall foul of EU law too. The relevant EU legislation dates back to 1975.
On 28th October 2009 the European Court of Justice issued a landmark judgement against Ireland condemning “the existence, throughout Ireland, of serious shortcomings…such as the incorrect construction, unsuitable siting, insufficient capacities, maintenance and inspection and the inactivity of the competent administrative authorities” regarding septic tanks and similar treatment systems. Since 2003 the European Commission has been in repeated contact with the Department of the Environment seeking a proper system of inspection and maintenance, and the European Court found that the laws, guidelines and policy circulars in place in Ireland didn’t have the “indisputable binding force necessary” for the effective application of EU laws to protect human health and the environment. The European judgment is a damning indictment of a long-running failure in Ireland – administrative as well as political – and one which has led to situations of neighbour poisoning neighbour. The ruling against Ireland was expected, and the Department of the Environment has to get back to the Commission by the end of 2010 mapping out a solution. Of the 30 or so European environmental actions in train against Ireland – the highest per capita – the septic tank case possibly has the greatest impact on human health.
To put things in perspective, E.coli levels in Ireland are seven times those of Northern Ireland (which is on a par with the Netherlands), 18 times those of Scotland, and 28 times those of England and Wales. In some counties the majority of private group water schemes have been found to be infected with E.coli (e.g. Donegal, Leitrim and Mayo). In terms of population affected, Galway is the worst offender with 50 of its 132 private group water schemes contaminated by E.coli. A study published by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2009 shows counties Kerry, Galway, Cork and Donegal to be among the worst offenders for overall water standards: each of these counties has 25 to 45 public or private water schemes in breach of standards. The most frequently cited reasons for breach were inadequate treatment for cryptosporidium, failure to meet E.coli standards, and excessive levels of trihalomethanes (THMs). Excessive THMs are carcinogenic: basically, what’s happened here is that too much chlorine and too many other chemicals have been sprayed on drinking water in an attempt to ‘neutralise’ pollution from septic tanks and other sources. THMs also affect nerve, kidney and liver functions. To be fair there is a committed cohort of civil servants working to try to undo the damage of 35 years of half measures and inaction.
The EPA published a new code of practice in late October, now available to view on www.epa.ie, but there remain some difficulties with the document. For example, there appears to be no known way to definitively test a septic tank to make sure it is not polluting. Should government continue to sanction a device we can’t test in practice? Septic tanks are at the cheap end of the spectrum, costing €1,500-€3,000. Buying a package system that’s guaranteed not to pollute raised the capital cost to €7,000. There’s also the question of flooding. Arguably, the EPA’s code of practice puts too little emphasis on flood risk: septic tanks can yield up their contents in a flood; more expensive systems usually have a shut-down feature to discreetly lock it all in. The government will soon start a public consultation process on rules for new buildings not served by municipal sewage systems. But that will cover only new buildings. What about all the existing systems?
Under the EPA’s code of practice a homeowner is encouraged to inspect the functionality of their septic tank. But there are problems here. Engineers working in the sector endure a battery of jabs to ward off a host of pernicious bugs lurking in wastewater. Should government be encouraging ordinary householders to physically lift the lid on septic tanks? Ireland doesn’t offer any courses to qualify competent persons in this sector. There’s a working group on that which will report during 2010. Perhaps it will engender a growing body of people to implement a new regime.
One county, Cavan, didn’t wait for the EU court action, and the October ruling expressly excludes Cavan County Council, noting that it put in place an enforcement system involving independent inspection, under 2004 bylaws. Septic tanks in Cavan must be registered and inspected every seven years. In reality, this is not sufficiently frequent, but it is a start. Moreover, we don’t have enough published information on the operation of the Cavan system. What we do know is that Cavan had carried out 3,168 septic tank inspections by the end of 2008. But we don’t know how many of those failed, what follow–up procedure is in place for systems that don’t pass the initial inspection or whether for cases where intervention is required but the householder cannot afford to pay, there is a remediation fund. Nevertheless, Cavan does point the way.
Of our 1.46 million homes, some 400,000 have their own waste-water treatment (27%). Another 100,000 systems serve small schools, pubs and other enterprises in villages and towns that aren’t on municipal sewage treatment systems. In short, outside of cities, well over half of homes and businesses systems are on septic tanks (or similar systems) in many counties. One of the worst offenders is septic tanks at coastal holiday homes. Because holiday homes are used intermittently, their septic tanks tend to break down more and, truth be told, inappropriate technology was frequently specified at design stage.
A national inspection system, involving checks once every four years, with allowance being made for follow-up checks for tanks that fail initial inspections, may require the employment – or perhaps the retraining and redeployment – of more than 300 suitably qualified persons. There’s a cost involved here. The total amount depends on the sum allocated for waivers and intervention for low-income households. But the cost per household may lie in the €40–60 a year range.
Clearly, a national system covering 500,000 homes and businesses is not going to be established overnight. Over the past year the levy on second homes has proved an important tool for councils, not just to generate revenue, but also to establish the spread of property comprising non-principal-private residences. To address the EU judgment, a logical first step would be to increase the levy by €50 for all second homes with septic tanks. This revenue would at least help get a robust system up and going. And over the course of 2010 a registration system could also be started to log primary homes with septic tanks, without charge to householders. A lot more thought needs to go in to the kind of systems that will replace failing septic tanks. Compost toilets have been widely used in Sweden for decades and people like Ollan Herr at Reedbeds Ireland are bringing the technology to Irish households.
Overall, it’s going to take some time to build up capacity and expertise. Small sensible steps are needed to get started. If those steering the project keep in mind the hidden victims here – the very young and very old in homes on polluted group-water schemes – they will stay the course. And a small extra charge on second homes with septic tanks appears to be a good way to start.