22nd September

Environmental ostrich syndrome is alive and well in Ireland


Inshore Ireland masthead

No sooner has the subject of domestic water charges faded into the background noise of the wider political debate it emerges in another guise and triggers some politicos into a predictable knee-jerk response.

The subject of on-site, waste-water treatment systems – or septic tanks to you and me – would cause the best of us to switch off.  

 But, just like the wider argument of how best to pay for domestic water, if we avoid introducing a licensing and inspection system it will be only a matter of time before Brussels starts wagging its finger at us. And when that happens, the national airwaves will echo to the sound of those for and against the idea.

Most of the time, however, only part of the domestic water supply debate is addressed: the cost of water coming through our taps. If we agree that ‘what goes up must come down’ then in a domestic setting, ‘what comes in (treated water) must also go out.

Agreed, who wants to discuss flushing toilets; washing machine and dishwasher outflows, kitchen sink and bathwater plug holes – not to mention washing the car, dog or whatever.

That may, be but if this elephant-in-the-room is not sorted soon, it will come back to bite us where it really hurts – firstly in the pocket and then in the environment.

Environment Minister Phil Hogan must consider himself unlucky inheriting the unresolved rural septic tanks problem.  How easier it would have been had his predecessor, John Gormley, remained in office long enough to implement the charges he had been predicting. But, that’s not the way this particular political drama has unfolded.

The problem is now firmly in Minister Hogan’s lap, and what a headache it might turn out to be as he, along with his Fine Gael party - opposed the introduction of domestic waste water charges when in opposition.

The European Court of Justice’s ruling in October 2009 called a hault with its finding that Ireland had failed to introduce adequate legislation to deal with domestic waste-water from septic tanks and other on-site wastewater treatment systems.
Their blunt message told us in effect to either get our act together and face the reality of charging for septic tanks, or face paying substantial fines.

Opposition has been predictable, with farmers condemning the notion as unfair to rural dwellers. More cynically however, and with an eye to his electorate, Fianna Fáil’s Eamon Ó Cúiv declared he would ‘go to jail’ before he would see a charge on septic tanks.

And, somewhat strangely, as she spends most of her working life in Belgium where domestic waste-water charges are the norm, MEP Marian Harkin called public meetings and opposed their introduction here.

Ireland, with an estimated (and it has to be an estimate because there is no official register) 400,000 household septic tanks is, per head of population, way ahead of England and Scotland with 800,000 and 400,000 respectively.

So let’s stop the dishonest political posturing, and for once have a real debate on how to defuse this financial and environmental time bomb.

In 2006, the CSO estimated that roughly 25% of the populationuse septic tanks.  If the effluent from an average single house is on around 250,000 litres per annum, then 270 million litres of wastewater is discharged daily.

That’s the equivalent of 108 olympic-sized swimming pools of unregulated wastewater being discharged into the Irish countryside – 24/7, 365 days-a-year.


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