Water containing human waste, industrial waste, and runoff from roads, and how it is treated, is hardly an inviting subject for polite conversation, and a report on the urban version of this problem normally would get scant attention.   The recent report from the Irish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Focus on Urban Waste Water Discharges in Ireland, breaks this pattern.  For the recently imposed charges for septic tanks and other private waste water treatment systems has changed the tenor of the conversation on the issue.

The contention is clear enough.  Serious deficiencies exist with urban waste water treatment plants and there are widespread and negative impacts on the environment flowing from these deficiencies.  So what is to be done to correct the problems with urban waste water systems?  The EPA report makes it clear that substantial investment from local authorities which are responsible for waste water treatment systems, perhaps with some aid provided by the national government, are required to bring the systems up to grade to comply with EU Directives and Irish regulations and to prevent further deterioration of water resources.

This funding mechanism has been used in the past to build and upgrade urban waste water treatment systems so it is no surprise.  But then there is a cry from the communities in the countryside:  why do we have to pay a charge for registering our septic tanks and, more troubling, why are we being held personally responsible for correcting any deficiencies with our septic tanks when fellow citizens of our urban areas are not being required to pay the costs of correcting their deficient urban waste water systems?   The question does raise issues of fairness and equity in application of environmental laws and regulations and we will try to address these issues but first we will review the recent EPA report on the urban treatment systems.

The EPA Report on Urban Waste Water

The bottom line for urban waste water treatment facilities in Ireland is that almost 50% do not meet EU waste water quality standards or Irish EPA guidelines.

Of the urban treatment facilities that are required to provide secondary treatment, and were required to do so between 2000 and 2008, eleven have failed to meet these requirements.  Two — Bray in Wicklow and Ringaskiddy in Cork — are ten years late in complying.  Several that have failed to meet the requirements are either adversely impacting bathing water — Clifden in Galway — or are causing serious pollution to rivers –  Moville in Donegal.  Twenty-six plants have no treatment or just screening; seventy-one have primary treatment but it is unclear whether the discharge is to a sensitive area and if so then additional treatment is likely required; and forty-two plants have no secondary treatment even though they discharge to tourist centres dependent on water activities.

Some waste water treatment facilities that discharge the “treated” waste water to sensitive areas are failing to reduce nutrients, including phosphorus and nitrogen.  These facilities include those in Cork, Dublin, and Kilkenny.

The primary application of sludge from the sewage treatment works is for reuse in agriculture (62%) or composting or land remediation at mine sites (38%) with only 0.1% landfilled.

EPA warns that the waste water treatment systems are at risk of further stress on their capacity to the extent that septic tanks and other private waste water systems are connected to these larger systems as a result of the recent septic tank charges issue.

Oversight and Enforcement

Only in 2007 did EPA take over responsibility for oversight and enforcement for waste water works owned by, invested in, controlled or used by a water services authority regime.  The oversight imposes on local authorities a series of sampling, reporting, monitoring, and corrective actions.  EPA uses a “risk-based” enforcement that relies on an assessment of various factors, including level of waste water treatment provided, effluent quality, impact of discharges on receiving steams, and proximity to sensitive environments (e.g., bathing waters, freshwater pearl mussel habitats).   This regime is not unlike what EPA does with industrial facilities, relying on self-reporting by the operator, with periodic independent monitoring by EPA, a common approach by environmental agencies with limited resources.

EPA reports that it received 529 applications from urban waste water treatment plants for licenses, which are required for the larger sewage systems.  Smaller systems require only a certificate and EPA has issued 512 certificates but these systems are not covered by this report. It appears that EPA has issued licenses for 190 of the larger plants so we must assume, since the report is silent on this issue, that 339 license applications (64%) are still pending. [Note 1]

There is room for improvement by the local authorities in fulfilling their obligations. For instance, they are required to notify EPA of any non-complaint discharge or other incident that presents a risk to the environment, and to include these incidents in their annual compliance reports.  In 2010, the local authorities notified EPA of 330 incidents when they occurred (and EPA could investigate if deemed necessary) yet in the annual compliance reports the local authorities included 520 incidents.  So almost 200 incidents took place where the local authorities failed to notify EPA at the time of the incident.

The obligations of the local authorities are extensive and the oversight regime is still developing but there is no mention of any enforcement action taken by EPA against local authorities for failing to comply with the regime. Clearly the failure to notify EPA of incidents is an important failure as it prevents EPA from investigating the incidents when they occur, if the incident appears to be significant.  As we know from experience, the national government has often been pressured into compliance with EU environmental Directives only when faced with substantial fines.  The same might be said about local authorities.

Key improvements called for by EPA include better and more frequent sampling, installation of higher performing monitoring equipment, and, critically, more and better training for plant operators.  This last recommendation is found in earlier studies of waste water treatment systems, in both the RoI and NI.  [Note 2]

Implications for Waste Water Systems in Countryside Communities

Owners of private waste water treatment systems, often septic tanks, most often live in the countryside and include farmers with small holdings, who receive support from the EU Common Agricultural Program and many of whom also hold non-farming jobs in trades, businesses or shops; people whose primary work is in the shops and businesses in nearby towns; and owners of holiday homes.

If almost 50% of urban waste water treatment facilities in Ireland do not meet EU waste water quality standards or Irish EPA guidelines, what is the scope of the problem for rural septic tanks.  That is a question that needs to be answered and any answer will come only after the septic tanks have been identified and sampled.

To assess complaints of unfairness from those who rely on septic systems it might be instructive to look at the experience in Northern Ireland (NI) and the United States (US).

In NI waste water treatment is the responsibility of Northern Ireland Water which also provides public water services.  NI Water is a government-owned but independently operated company.  It funds the construction and operation of waste water treatment systems throughout NI and has spent over £1 billion on water and waste water services over the five year period to 2007/08 with plans to spend a total of over £3 billion on such services by 2020.  In 2011 the government provided a £4.3 million extension to the Rural Wastewater Investment Programme for treatment systems that serve up to 300 people.  That amount brings to £22 million spent on these smaller treatment systems.  Revenue from water and sewerage charges from non-domestic users presumably helps to fund construction and operation of urban waste water treatment systems.

Owners of septic tanks, no matter when constructed or installed, are required to obtain a Discharge Consent under the Water (Northern Ireland) Order 1999, and the Consent provides for the conditions under which the system must operate.  So registration has been a requirement in NI for over 10 years without a mass uprising.

NI Water also provides a free yearly service for desludging private septic tanks in rural areas.  The money for this service presumably comes from the general revenue or specific government grants, and is not the responsibility of the owner of the septic tank.  Keeping tanks clear of build-up of sludge is a critical maintenance for keeping septic tanks free of problems.

In the United States, a series of environmental laws were passed in the 1970s, during the Nixon administration, to protect water resources through upgrading waste water treatment plants, primarily in urban areas.   Federal funds, through the Clean Water Act State Revolving Loan Fund, were provided to help states and local authorities implement the program.  Many of those plants are now, some thirty years later, in need of replacement or upgrading, in part because of more stringent regulations.  The US EPA estimates that such maintenance or new construction will cost almost $400 billion over the next twenty years.  It is clear that state and local governments do not have the resources to provide such funding levels.  Various funding mechanisms at the national level have been proposed, including appropriations from general treasury funds, issuance of revenue bonds and tax exempt financing at state and local levels, public-private partnerships, state infrastructure banks, and user fees on certain consumer products.

Nearly one in four households in the United States depends on an individual septic (onsite) system or small community cluster system to treat wastewater.

Private waste water systems in the US, such as septic tanks, in rural areas that are not connected to public sewers remain the responsibility of individual property owners, subject to regulation by local and state health laws and environmental regulations on construction, placement and maintenance.  The US EPA has some regulations on distances of septic systems from drinking water supplies and streams, and it does regulate disposal of sludge from septic and other waste water systems.

There is usually no third-party support for maintaining, inspecting and repairing or replacing private septic tanks.  When houses are sold the septic tanks are inspected and repairs have to be made.  If a septic tank leaks or discharges pollutants into the ground or surface waters, the individual owner is subject to civil or criminal enforcement by either state or local environmental agencies and is liable for all costs of inspection and repairs, as well as the costs of remediating any environmental damage.  Individuals in rural farming communities in the US that rely on septic systems are as strapped for cash as rural communities in Ireland and finding several thousand dollars to replace a septic tank is not easy.  But it is done because the law is firm – we will not allow your septic tank to pollute our environment.

An exception to the lack of third-party funding for septic tanks is found in New York where the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (NYC DEP) provides funding to help homeowners protect water quality from septic tank system contamination.  This funding is available only to homeowners in the Catskill area of New York, west of the Hudson, because that area serves as a critical watershed for New York City’s drinking water supply. Any deterioration of the watershed would threaten NYC’s drinking water and require, under US EPA rules, that NYC build a filtration plant to clean that water supply at a cost of billions. [Note 3]  So it is cost effective for NYC to pay for the costs of inspecting, pumping out, replacing or upgrading septic systems in this critical area.  There are 22,000 residential septic tanks in this area and NYC DEP pays 100% of the costs for septic tanks in primary residences and 60% for secondary residences.  Through July 2011, 3,750 failing or likely-to-fail septic tanks were repaired or replaced under this program at a cost of $48 million.

In Ireland, significant funding for the urban waste water treatment systems has been provided by the government’s Water Services Investment Programme.  At this point there is no budget program for assisting those in the countryside who rely on septic tanks, although there is talk by some politicians that such aid might be made available.

Is this a fair system?  In a recent opinion piece in the Irish Times, Frank McDonald raises the issue of the many subsidies enjoyed by people who live in the countryside where services, like mail delivery and school transport, are more expensive but cost no more.  Also, levies charged on purchases of new homes are substantially higher in urban areas and a sizeable portion of those levies are for sewage services, whereas the smaller levies for rural housing do not provide any funds for sewage.  So urban dwellers pay for sewage services, at least to some extent, whereas rural dwellers do not.  McDonald notes that 250 million litres of effluent are discharged by the 450,000 homes with septic tanks every day.

The Irish government has proposed that the way to clean up the environment from polluting septic tanks, and comply with EU Directives, without unduly burdening rural dwellers, is to implement a risk-based inspection system.  The oversight and enforcement regime for urban waste water treatment systems is instructive for the evolving program for rural septic tank systems and arguments by those who live in the countryside about unfair treatment.  While the proposed approach for septic tanks is characterized as a “risk-based assessment,” the same kind of language used for the urban waste water treatment systems, it seems highly unlikely that individual septic tank owners will be subjected to a similar regime requiring the full licensing, sampling, monitoring, and reporting activities.  Rather owners of septic tanks will have to register — simply informing that they own a septic tank — and then wait to see if a local authority ever comes calling for an inspection.  If they do not live near, nor discharge from the septic tank into, a sensitive area, they may never be bothered by local authorities.  Obviously if their septic tank is discovered, through some random inspection or polluting event, to be responsible for an incident, then action will be required, one would hope.

Of course it has to asked, will the risk-based inspection be triggered only after a leak or other manifestation of environmental damage is brought to the attention of the local authority?   If so, several problems with such an approach come to mind.  First, it requires inspection, and of course remediation, only after the damage has been done, like putting on a lock on the barn after the horse has escaped the barn.  Equally troubling is that the real risk here is that if you do not look for a problem you likely will not find one.  It does not take much imagination to see local authorities turning a blind eye to possible septic tank problems in response to local pressure.

This loose oversight may offer some comfort to those in the countryside who own septic tanks, but it is not comforting to those who along with EPA recognize that waste water is one of the main sources of pressure on water quality.   One other problem with the so-called risk-based approach is that it well may not satisfy the EU Court’s judgment on this matter and Ireland will continue to face substantial fines for non-compliance with the EU Directive.  The political pressure that led to the reduction in the registration fee from €50 to €5, and loss of revenue, may ease the burdens of the rural septic tank community, but it will seem small consolation to the general population who will have to bear the loss of this revenue and the payment of substantial EU fines that will be funded from the general revenues.

Just today,1 March 2012, the Minister for the Environment issued a Consultation Document proposing regulations for the responsibilities of owners of septic tanks.  After a preliminary review it seems clear that it requires only that “…householders are aware of the location of their system and that they carry out a visual examination of their system at least once a year to ensure there is no evidence that it is causing pollution.”  In other words, all that householders have to do is visually inspect the land around their septic system, i.e., look around, and if they see nothing obviously wrong, that’s it.  Hopefully such look arounds will not take place at night.

There is a further obligation to empty the sludge from the tank but again only when it is obvious there is a problem. The Minister rejected any set time period for desludging tanks, as required by Cavan County and NI Water.  There may be further obligations or inspections by third parties, but not until EPA develops a National Inspection Plan sometime in 2012 or 2013 and that Plan will be “risk based.”  See comments above.

These proposed regulations are less than robust and likely will have little impact on resolving pollution from private septic tanks.  It will be interesting to see if the proposed regulations satisfy the EU Court or Water Directives.  One would think that they will not.

Note 1. If this is the case, it is important to understand the reasons for the delays and when the public can expect the remaining licenses to be issued.  If the delays are the result of a lack of EPA staff and other resources, this is important information for the public to understand so it can help develop the political will to support EPA’s efforts.

Note 2.  See, “Water Pollution Enforcement in Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland” [March 1, 2010] and “Report on EPA Annual Conference, Dublin” [November 2009 issue] in the Reports section of irish environment magazine for earlier discussion of need for enhanced operation and maintenance and training of waste water treatment staff.

Note 3.  NYC DEP also has convinced the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, at least up to this moment, to ban fracking in this same watershed because fracking presents too great a risk to NYC’s drinking water supply.


Irish EPA, “Focus on Urban Waste Water Discharges in Ireland” (February 2012)

See, “Water Pollution Enforcement in Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland” [March 1, 2010] and “Report on EPA Annual Conference, Dublin” [November 2009 issue] in the Reports section of irish environment magazine for earlier discussion of need for enhanced operation and maintenance and training of waste water treatment staff.

“Ireland’s Proposed (and so far inadequate) Answer to Septic System Problems,” in the Report section of irish environment magazine (February 2012).

Frank McDonald, “Septic tank hype veils public subsidy to rural dwellers,” Irish Times, February 25, 2012

“The Practical Approach Taken to the Draft Septic Tank Standards will Protect Groundwater – Hogan”  01 March 2012,29548,en.htm

Northern Ireland Water, “Septic Tank, Domestic Treatment Plant and Cesspool Services,”

“Wastewater,” Report Card for America’s Infrastructure,

US EPA, “Septic (Onsite) Systems,”

New York City Department of Environmental Protection, “Septic Systems.”

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2 comments so far, add your own below

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