Crunch time for owners of 440,000 septic tank systems

Katherine Ketch gets advice on the septic tank rules from Dr Eoghan Clifford of NUI Galway

The controversial Water Services (Amendment) Bill 2011 has passed all stages, and draft regulations are to be published next week.

Then, before finalising regulations, including requirements for maintenance and de-sludging of septic tanks, there will be a four-week period of public consultation.

Environment Minister Phil Hogan said recently, “Under the new legislation, anyone who owns a septic tank or a waste water treatment system needs to register in 2012. After the public consultation period has been completed and the regulations have been set, a registration system will be in place in local authority offices, and online. A one-off fee of €50 will apply to registrations. The fee has been reduced to €5 for the first three months, April, May and June. Inspections will commence in 2013 and will be on a risk-based system, whereby the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will be responsible for targeting areas where they believe the ground water is of poor quality due to contamination. There will be no inspection charge.”

Owners of 440,000 waste water treatment systems off the main sewerage system have until Mar 31, 2013 to register. It will be an offence not to register, and a conviction will result in a class A fine (up to €5,000). An appeal against conviction is priced at €20. Enactment of the new legislation is part of Ireland’s defence against the imposition of fines by the European Court of Justice, which has ruled against Ireland in relation to waste water treatment.

The minister says the new Bill offers the most direct means of complying with the ruling and ensuring human health and the environment are protected. Existing legislation placed the duty of care on householders, regarding their waste water treatment.

“The new law requires you to register your waste water treatment system, and that is not just septic tanks, that is any on-site domestic waste water treatment system. And it allows for inspectors to come on and inspect those systems,” says Dr Eoghan Clifford, lecturer in Civil Engineering at NUI Galway, and expert on septic tank technology.

Up to now, Dr Clifford says, if you have a waste water system or septic tank at your house, no-one comes along to inspect it, theoretically.

Dr Clifford sees two knock-on effects. People may have to repair their systems; and it will raise awareness of maintenance of treatment systems, in a positive way.

Systems in at-risk areas could be the first to be assessed, on a county basis. These are generally where you have poorly draining soils, says Dr Clifford, where you have a high water table, and bedrock at a shallow distance below the surface.

“Those areas can be spread throughout the country. You couldn’t name one county over another, as such. Riskier areas perhaps might be areas where they have in the past found contamination of local water supplies or regional water schemes. In a recent HSE report there was contamination found in places, for example Galway, Sligo and Leitrim. I think, over the years in a lot of counties, you would have found contamination of private water schemes or rural water schemes at one stage or another,” Dr Clifford says.

However, it can also be a problem if drainage or percolation occurs too quickly,. Then, wastewater moves too quickly through the soil, and basically, it doesn’t give the bacteria in the soil a chance to biologically treat the waste water, Dr Clifford says. As a general rule, good soil equates with good farmland.

Waste water systems that pre-date 1992 could pose problems — such as grey (waste) water going to a soak pit instead of the septic tank, non-existing or hard-to-locate percolation areas, and the general standard of septic tank, says Dr Clifford.

However his understanding is that if you met the regulations at the time of installation, and your plant at inspection is found not to cause contamination of the environment or threaten public health, you will not have to change or upgrade your system, even if it doesn’t meet current building regulations.

If it’s not working you have a problem, and he says the repair cost can vary widely. The solution can be as simple and relatively cheap as replacing mechanical equipment or de-sludging a septic tank — or it can cost from €4,000 to €7,000 (average €5,000 to €6,000) for a new septic tank and percolation area. The highest cost he has ever come across is €10,000, but that is rare, he says.

Problem sites that fail the various on-site assessments would require a packaged waste water treatment system. This can involve creating raised percolation areas or sand polishing filters, by importing sand or soil. Even in that case, Dr Clifford says, €10,000 should see you through. It would be an extremely rare site for a six-person house that would cost more than €10,000, he says.

The caveat to that being, Dr Clifford says, if you have a B&B, or where you are processing a lot of people through the particular house, you need a larger system.

Packaged secondary treatment systems take the form of mechanical aeration systems, filter systems and constructed wetlands. The EPA has published guidance on selection, design and maintenance of these systems.

Dr Clifford warns that if you are installing a new system, get an appropriately qualified contractor with the proper insurances in place — such as a fully insured chartered engineer. “Be sure you are getting the proper expertise, and you are satisfied that the person that designs your system will design you a system fit for purpose, not one that is over-designed or under-designed, because an over-designed system is as big a problem as an under-designed system,” he warns.

In the meantime, he advises people to learn more about what is required, then look at their treatment system, and ensure it meets the standards.

He encourages those on difficult sites to research the type of treatment systems they may have to be put in place, following inspection. “I do think that people have to be aware that you cannot have a faulty treatment system located with your house,” Dr Clifford says.

“So I think when people understand a bit more, they will be able to input into the public consultation, expressing opinions on how they could be supported in carrying out these changes. For me, that would be a major issue, if I was someone who might be affected,” he says.

He hopes a sensible approach will be taken and that where people complied with best practice at the time of installation and genuinely make every effort, support measures will be put in place if they cannot afford the repair.

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