I do not agree with Deputy Mattie McGrath on his campaign for the abolition or even boycott of registration fees on septic tanks. It seems to me that this campaign is driven from the perspective of his particular constituency, which he defines as ‘rural Ireland’, and not from the public good of all of the people of Ireland.
Good clean unpolluted water is a necessity for all our lives. It is a resource which we cannot afford to do without and it cannot be confined within a narrow constituency nor can it be a platform for political populism. It is far too valuable for either.
In recent decades in Ireland, we have had long periods in towns and cities, including Clonmel, when domestic water was so contaminated that it was a danger to public health. In Galway and Ennis it has been a recurrent problem, and there are few areas in which it has not been an intermittent problem, causing illness, enormous extra expense for ordinary people, loss of business, and a serious deterrent to our tourist trade.
Several reports have traced this contamination to two sources: leachate from farm-waste and malfunctioning domestic septic tanks which pollute our ground water. Perhaps the most definitive of these reports is one entitled ‘The Three Rivers Report’ which was issued some years ago. This included a study of the catchment of the Suir, and it reached the same conclusion: the contamination of ground water, the source of all our water supplies, cannot be dismissed by colourful language or an emotional campaign about the payment of a registration fee of €50. Simply put, it is about the health of all the people.
There are now several hundreds of thousands of septic tanks in Mattie McGrath’s ‘rural Ireland’, each one of which has the potential of polluting the domestic water supply of an entire community. A survey already undertaken in County Cavan found some malfunction in at least 25 per cent.
The proliferation of these facilities is directly traceable to decisions taken by local planning authorities in recent decades, when developments were permitted which were contrary to good planning, and often in defiance of official planners, because local elected representatives chose not to look at long-term consequences. So now many of the most beautiful and sensitive areas of our Irish countryside are dotted with developments which make no concessions to either the terrain or to the ultimate destination of domestic drainage.
In recent years, some local planning authorities, now acutely aware of consequences, have stipulated the most up-to-date designs in septic tanks, with a provision in the conditions for annual inspection. But is inspection ever verified by the planning authority? In the heady days of development, it would often appear that conditions were more honoured in their non-compliance than they were in their compliance.
For many years, Mr McGrath was an elected member of South Tipperary County Council and for sometime, was chairman of that local planning authority. It would seem to me that he now has to seriously look at some of the planning decisions of that authority, and the consequences of these decisions. Quite apart from the question of septic tanks, it is now acknowledged that our current recession, our ghost estates, our empty hotels, our enormous number of unoccupied new houses, are directly related to inappropriate planning. Banks finances these developments but they did so only when planning permission had been granted by local planning authorities.
Local elected representatives may now wish to forget their contributions to these decisions, but the consequences of such short-sightedness is not lost on those who do not now have a job, or on the huge numbers of our young and talented people who are emigrating.
The same short-sightedness, whatever its source, should not now become another stalking-horse for political expediency. If we become known as a country where it is not safe to drink water, or even to wash our teeth in it, then it would seem that any recovery of our economic integrity is doomed before it starts.
And while Mr McGrath may now represent himself as speaking on behalf of the people of rural Ireland on the subject of the registration and ultimate inspection of septic tanks, how comprehensive is this representation. Many, many people now living in the countryside do not make their living off the land. They work in towns and cities. Their children go to schools in towns and cities. Their recreation is largely centred in towns and cities. They and their children, for a significant portion of their time, will depend on towns and cities for their drinking water and for the preparation of their food.
At its most basic level, land for the preservation of their own wellbeing and that of their children, they would not tolerate the pollution of this water, by perhaps their own septic tank. Nor, as good citizens would they want to inflict such on the ordinary people of the urban community where they, themselves, spend most of their lives.
And for what? For the sum of €50 registration fee, and the subsequent correction of any malfunction of their septic tanks! And, as if we Irish do not know the fundamentals for our own self-preservation, all has to be done under the inderdict of the EU and the threat of unaffordable fines if we do not comply.
While Deputy McGrath may claim that his constituency is particularly rural, then he might recall that the largest population in that constituency is in the town of Clonmel, where two years ago, at least half that population had to buy bottled water because the public supply had been infected with cryptosporidium.
His anti-registration-and-inspection-of-septic-tanks campaign is on a high road to nothing. As a wily politician he should quietly drop it.