Fish Kill in Choptank River

There are almost half a million septic tanks in the country. These are the individual sewage treatment systems attached to one-off houses in rural areas, not joined up to a ‘mains’ sewerage system. Also known as On-site Domestic Waste Water Treatment Systems (DWWTS), these can threaten public health and the environment when they fail to operate correctly.

Effluent emanating from a septic tank contains human excrement as well as household chemicals and detergents, among other things. When it is not absorbed by the soil surrounding the septic tank, it can form stagnant pools on the ground surface; humans are increasingly likely to come in contact with it, being thereby exposed to pathogens, e.g. faecal coliforms. According to the EPA, there are approximately 1 million E. coli bacteria in one litre of effluent from a septic tank. The typical volume of effluent from a single house is 180 litres per person per day. On a national scale, this equates to a liquid discharge of 210,000 m3 per day or 46 million gallons (equivalent to 84 Olympic swimming pools).

In addition to posing an immediate health risk to the system owners and their neighbours, poorly constructed and maintained septic tanks are a significant source of environmental diffuse pollution, running into rivers and streams and leading to the eutrophication of surface waters, degradation of the aquatic environment and loss of fish and other species.  It can also contaminate groundwater, especially when constructed over porous rock, which allows effluent to permeate down into deeper groundwaters. These same groundwaters may then be used as a source of drinking water for private wells and group water schemes. In rural areas, 86% of water abstracted for public and private drinking water supply is from groundwater. Pollution of such groundwater supplies can lead to public health hazards, such as gastro-intestinal infections resulting from faecal contamination, and ‘Blue Baby Syndrome’, which is caused by excessive nitrate levels.

In 2012, in response to the judgment (C-188/08) of the EU Courts against Ireland under the Waste Framework Directive 1975/442/EC on the regulation of domestic waste water, the Government introduced legislation to control discharges from these systems. Central to these new regulations is a National Inspection Plan for DWWTSs which has been developed by the EPA and completed its first year in June 2013. This plan involves Local Authority staff inspecting septic tanks in prioritised areas designated by the EPA to ensure that these systems are not posing a risk to human health or the environment. If the septic tank is found to pose a risk, the homeowner is issued with an advisory notice and given a certain amount of time to fix the problem. The EPA are reviewing the first year of the National Inspection Plan and will be issuing a further 3 Year National Inspection Plan shortly, after a period of consultation early in 2014.

SWAN welcomes the introduction of a system to control pollution from septic tanks. However, we have concerns about shortcomings in the system, such as the low level of inspections, and the very long timeline allowed between inspections and the mandatory carrying out of remediation measures, during which pollution can continue. These concerns are set out in a number of consultation submissions made by SWAN on the Regulations and National Inspection Plan.

There is a grant system in place to assist with remediation which is only available to those who registered their systems by February 1st 2013, and whose system is inspected and found to be non-compliant.

You can get more information on the EPA website here.

Read more about the current status of Ireland’s groundwater in the EPA Report, ‘Water Quality in Ireland 2007 – 2009’. For more on septic systems, how they work, how to maintain them and what the benefits are, please read A Homeowner’s Guide to Septic Systems.