Reality check on water quality needed in septic tank debate


AN EDITORIAL in The Irish Timeson septic tanks (January 4th) and recent statements by An Taisce seek inaccurately to characterise rural homeowners as happily polluting groundwater and surface water with every toilet-flush to their septic tanks, not to mention being responsible for the drinking water crises of recent years, including the cryptosporidiumoutbreak in Galway, writes MARIAN HARKIN

This is a misrepresentation of the facts which deflects the blame from where it mainly lies, and also serves An Taisce’s anti-rural housing argument.

A reality check is in order: the impression is often given that Ireland has poor water quality compared with many of its European neighbours. Not so. Recent analysis based on the EU’s water directive places Ireland well up in the top half of European countries with regard to water quality, ahead of the UK, France and Germany.

Indeed, a recent EPA report, Water Quality in Ireland 2007-2009, indicated that 85 per cent of groundwater bodies were at “good” status and 15 per cent at “poor” status. It said of the 15 per cent with “poor” status “by far the greater proportion of this is caused by the input of pollutants, mainly phosphate, probably from agricultural activities, although on-site wastewater treatment systems may also be a minor source”.

Furthermore, the Eastern River Basin Management Plan, which covers all or part of Louth, Cavan, Offaly, Meath, Westmeath, Kildare, Dublin, Wexford and Wicklow, estimates that “75 per cent of the costs needed to improve water quality to the required levels by 2015 are within the municipal and industrial sectors, while septic tanks amount to 5 per cent”. Again, a simple, clear message reflecting their view of the contribution of septic tanks to pollution. And while the river basin is not a mirror image of the rest of the country, nonetheless it has 70,000 septic tanks.

Finally, a comparable study in Northern Ireland indicates that 7-10 per cent of pollution is attributable to septic tanks.

It is absolutely appropriate that we deal with deficient septic tanks but in the hierarchy of threats to our waters, they are well down the list. Time and time again septic tanks have been blamed for the cryptosporidiumoutbreak in Galway.

Several investigations have failed to find the source of the outbreaks but there are a number of facts to be taken into consideration. Chief among these is that many towns and villages in Co Galway have either inadequate or non-existent wastewater treatment plants, and the now upgraded Terryland treatment plant in Galway city was inadequate at the time of the cryptosporidiumoutbreak.

So, despite An Taisce’s insistence that “the stark reality is that the major drinking water crises of recent years are linked to inappropriately sited or poorly managed septic tanks – eg Galway’s large-scale outbreak of crypto in 2007” – in reality there were many factors at play, and in the final analysis we simply do not know.

The January 4th editorial is scathing of rural people when it states that “a mentality persists that regards government regulations in defence of the common good as unwelcome and unjustified interference” and “arising from that attitude, plans to protect public health and the environment by registering and inspecting septic tanks are being strongly resisted in rural Ireland”.

Having held 15 public meetings in 14 counties on this issue in July and August 2011, it is clear to me that people support the concept of the common good as long as it is genuinely common and that burdens are shared equally.

The editorial also uses the phrase “the polluter pays” and here we can fully agree. Let’s investigate how this principle works. In the last 10 years there was up to €3 billion spent on wastewater services in Ireland, of which 100 per cent was spent on urban wastewater services. Given that one-third of our population is rural, this is a direct transfer of some €1 billion of rural taxpayers’ money to urban services.

There are almost half a million septic tanks in Ireland. If we had invested a fair proportion of rural taxpayers’ money in their upgrade and upkeep over the last 10 years, we would have invested €2,000 in every septic tank – more than enough to ensure compliance, improve water quality and protect the common good.

The real question here is which polluter pays? Rural taxation is the same as urban taxation, yet all tax revenue is spent on urban wastewater systems while rural dwellers are now told they will have to pay registration fees for septic tanks, any remedial works and ongoing upkeep. The core of the problem is equity. If the polluter really pays, why does a flush cost twice as much in Falcarragh as it does in Foxrock?

Marian Harkin is MEP for the North-West constituency

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