Septic tanks have not gone away - you know!

Margaret Rossiter
Septic tanks have not gone away. They are in the ground, somewhere in the garden. We may not even be sure of the exact location and they are not the subject of our normal daily social conversation. But just now, we ordinary Irish, hard-working, cash-strapped, tax-paying citizens are paying substantial amounts of money, which we cannot afford, just because we have not yet got our act together in properly dealing with an identified hazard to our water supplies.

Septic tanks have not gone away. They are in the ground, somewhere in the garden. We may not even be sure of the exact location and they are not the subject of our normal daily social conversation. But just now, we ordinary Irish, hard-working, cash-strapped, tax-paying citizens are paying substantial amounts of money, which we cannot afford, just because we have not yet got our act together in properly dealing with an identified hazard to our water supplies.

If septic tanks are working properly, they are efficiently dealing with our waste, human and domestic. That efficiency is dependent on the proper siting of the tank in the first place, and then on good maintenance. A small crack in the structure, or a blocked drain, can result in serious risk to the health of an entire community.

The contents of a malfunctioning structure do not just go away, they seep down into the sub-soil and into our ground water, which is the vital source of our drinking water. And Ireland, during the past two decades, has experienced repeated occurences of the contamination of the public supply. The warnings have become a hardy-annual: don’t drink, or wash vegetables, or brush teeth in tap water. Boil, boil, boil! And buy, buy, buy - expensive bottled water!

All of this in a green and pleasant land, with its multiples of sparkling streams and beautiful rivers and its, apparently, endless supplies of rain! For several predictable months every year, water becomes a serious threat to our wellbeing and health.

A number of reports have identified that threat to two major sources: malfunctioning septic tanks and mis-management of farm and animal waste. The latter is now well-regulated and supervised, and a number of prosecutions have resulted from breaches. But, it seems, that septic tanks have been immune to either supervision or identification. In the annual contamination of Galways’s domestic water supply, it took several years before one such structure was identified, draining into the Corrib, and which contributed (there may have been others) to such contamination that tourists were advised not to wash their hands in un-boiled water.

The European Community has been warning us for many years that we have not been conforming to basic standards in the production of our domestic water. In pursuit of these standards - and for the good of our health, we were obliged to register all septic tanks, with a view to ultimate inspection and proper management.

This warning was ignored by the last government. Faced with time limitations, the present Minister for the Environment introduced compulsory registration last year. At that stage, the imposition of fines by the EC was imminent.

These fines are now in operation and are computed on a daily basis. Within the past few months, Ireland has paid almost 2 million, and these fines are ongoing until we comply fully and practically with regulations.

And because our national expenditure now far exceeds our national income, we have to borrow money, at a high rate of interest, to pay fines, because of our failure to protect that essential for human life - water.

Of course, it makes no sense. It has the ingredients for a Gilbert & Sullivan plot, and a clever ditty or two, if it wasn’t so serious and expensive. But it is the attitude of some of our politicans, notably of the Independent and Left constituency, that makes it even more serious and expensive and bewildering.

They conducted a well-publicised and often belligerent campaign, advising the owners of septic tanks not to register and not to pay any fee attached to registration. Some of these elected representatives/campaigners maintained that such registration was unnecessary “because the Councils should know the locations, since local authorities had given the original planning permission.” They did not state that, as former local representatives, they had been members of planning authorities, whose bad planning decisions have made a major contribution to Ireland’s current problem.

Opposition is an integral part of our democracy. We need the Independent and Left constituencies, but we need that opposition to be honest, practical, rational and challenging, and not just orientated on the next election.

Clean water is a vital necessity - for all citizens. It is not populist issue. And the common good, in Ireland’s current depressed state, is not well-served by our having to pay ongoing substantial fines with money which we have not got, especially when it has been facilitated by political populism.