22nd September

Widespread inspection of septic tanks unlikely

John Hearne

It is now thought unlikely that all 440,000 septic tanks and treatment systems in the State will be subject to individual inspections. Minister for the Environment, Phil Hogan TD has said there will be a ‘risk based’ and ‘evidence based’ approach to inspections.

8.1environment septic tank

Evidence of pollution will prompt the inspection of registered septic tanks in the affected area; ad-hoc or random inspections will not form part of the government’s response to the issue.


The controversy has arisen as a result of a European Court of Justice judgment made against Ireland three years ago. The ruling stated that Ireland had broken EU law for failing to enact legislation to deal with domestic waste water – not just from septic tanks but from other individual treatment systems.

If the legislation is not enacted, the State will become liable for a lump sum fine of €2.7m and daily fines of €26,173 thereafter. In order to avoid these charges, the Water Services Amendment Bill was introduced. It is currently making its way through the Houses of the Oireachtas.

How to ensure your septic tank is working properly

  • all septic tanks should be inspected and de-sludged at least annually
  • if you never have to empty your septic tank, it may be because it’s leaking and effluent is not being properly treated before it comes in contact with groundwater. This could result in contamination of adjacent drinking water wells and may result in problems for surrounding householders
  • if the tank has to be emptied more frequently, then either it’s too small for the number of people in the house or there is an inflow of groundwater into the tank. Either way, the tank should be water-tight
  • safety note: Don’t enter a septic tank or wastewater treatment system. They emit dangerous gases and only certified personnel should carry out works.  For a list of licensed waste contractors, contact your local authority
  • rainwater from roofing should be diverted away from the septic tank into a properly constructed soak-away.
  • grey water from washing machines and sinks should be treated in the wastewater treatment system
  • fat and grease should not be poured down the sink. Excessive use of bleach and disinfectants should be avoided
  • driveways or paved areas should not be located over the percolation area or polishing filter

(Guidelines courtesy of EPA)

The recent reduction in the septic tank registration fee to €5 from €50 has been welcomed by the broad coalition that opposed any action on septic tanks. Under the terms of Minister Hogan’s climb-down, as long as householders register their septic tank between March and June of this year, they will escape with the reduced charge. Registration fees will now bring in a maximum of €2.2m, assuming everyone registers within the three month period.

Media reports suggest that the drop in revenue will mean that additional exchequer funds will have to be found to cover the cost of inspections.

Speaking after the fee reduction was announced, however, Minister Hogan said it was a recognition that we don’t need to charge people as much as was originally intended “because we now have a better outcome with the European Commission to comply with the European Court of Justice judgment.”

He added that existing local authority staff would be trained by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) staff to carry out inspections.

The debate has now shifted away from the registration fee onto the cost of any remedial works that faulty tanks will require. Fianna Fáil deputy leader Éamon Ó Cuiv has suggested that repair bills could run to as much as €20,000 per householder, a figure that the minister has branded “absolute nonsense”.
Minister Hogan nonetheless conceded that in a worst case scenario, a repair cost in the order of €8,000 would be realistic. He has since modified his position, stating that faulty tanks could give rise to maintenance costs of between €50 and €100 every two years.

While registration fees will become payable next month, no inspections will be carried out until next year. Minister Hogan has expressed confidence there will not be major problems with septic tanks.

He has also raised the possibility of providing financial help for any repairs works that may be necessary. Guidelines on criteria for septic tanks are due to be published before the end of the month. These will then be open for public consultation for four weeks, by which time they will be approved by the Houses of the Oireachtas.

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