‘Hastening slowly” would appear to the approach adopted by Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan in the enforcement of EU regulations concerning water quality and septic tanks. Faced by a campaign of widespread opposition to proposed inspections and remedial measures, he introduced grants for faulty systems but made payment contingent on early registration and cooperation. And the annual inspection process will involve about one thousand of the estimated half a million septic tanks in rural Ireland.
A cynic might suggest the overriding imperative was to stop the clock on EU fines for failing to protect drinking water from contamination. Now that fines have been suspended, the authorities can get on with an inspection and corrective process at a speed that is unlikely to create damaging local pressure. Politically, it makes sense. The alternative might have generated anarchic stand-offs, similar to the turf-cutting campaign on protected bogs. As with illegal turf-cutting, however, the eventual cost will impact on taxpayers and respect for the law.
Some 90 per cent of septic tank owners have now registered with local authorities. In view of past, entrenched opposition to the scheme, this change of heart may have been driven by a prospect of receiving grant assistance to repair defective systems. But the Government is unlikely to have to provide money anytime soon. The annual rate of inspections will see to that.
The Environmental Protection Agency has a duty to protect water quality. Defective septic tanks can be a source of the most insidious pollutants, especially where groundwater is affected. Work will be carried out under its supervision by the Water Services Authority which, in turn, is a subsidiary of Bord Gáis.
Inspections will begin this month and districts at risk of pollution have been ranked from “low” to “very high”. In counties where public health and water quality is at greatest risk, however, fewer than 100 inspections will take place over the next year. That may be presented as a start, but it is a very poor one.