Septic tank failures threaten public health and water quality


Results from the first official inspections of septic tanks in rural Ireland are truly shocking. More than half of the small number of household units checked by local authorities failed basic maintenance standards while a significant number posed a threat to public health because of leaks and discharges to rivers and streams. That outcome reflects decades of official neglect and of government unwillingness to protect the quality of drinking water.

Blaming the European Commission and European Courts for interfering in Irish affairs has become a fall-back position for those resisting modern, ecological standards. Without such involvement and threats of escalating financial penalties, however, Ireland would be a poorer and more polluted place. Fines of €2.6million were imposed from Brussels because of consistent, official failure to protect public health. Legislation on septic tanks was finally passed last year. But progress has been slow.

The decision to inspect some 1,000 septic tanks in the first year – out of almost half-a-million – reflected a tentative political approach to the exercise. Advance warning was given, in that the Environment Protection Agency nominated those counties expected to have the highest failure rates. Galway and Cork were singled out, followed by Donegal, Kerry, Clare and Wexford. But Galway householders, who campaigned against septic tank charges, cleaned up their act and have produced a failure rate of less than 15 per cent. In contrast, failure rates for Roscommon, Limerick and Cavan exceeded 70 per cent. Significantly, no inspections were conducted in high-risk counties Clare and Donegal. The variation in results suggests that public awareness and social responsibility influenced individual behaviour. Few in rural Ireland would deliberately threaten the welfare of their communities. Much work remains to be done, however, in persuading householders to prevent leakages that could place the health of their neighbours at risk.