In response to recent press reports, the European Commission would like to clarify a number of points with regard to EU legislation and action on septic tanks in Ireland.
Poorly managed or controlled septic tanks may cause significant harm to the environment and human health, including through discharges containing bacteria such as E. coli and pathogens and parasites. This is a particular concern in Ireland, which has more than 400,000 septic tanks throughout the country.
EU legislation sets out an effective framework to address this, however Ireland has not yet implemented it. Following a 2009 European Court of Justice ruling, and a subsequent 2010 formal notice setting out the Irish infringements, the European Commission in May 2011 referred the issue back to the Court of Justice and requested the imposition of a lump sum fine of €2.7 million and a daily penalty payment of €26,173 for as long as the infringements persist. The Commission notes that Ireland is preparing legislation but is not satisfied with the slow pace of progress in complying with EU requirements.
Approximately one third of Ireland's housing stock consists of isolated dwellings almost all of which use individual waste water systems to dispose of their waste water. In total there are more than 400,000 septic tanks throughout the territory of Ireland. In many parts of the country geological and soil conditions may make it difficult for septic tanks to function without causing pollution.
Given the scale, and if poorly managed and controlled, septic tanks may cause significant harm to the environment and human health. In particular, discharges from septic tanks contain bacteria such as E. coli and may contain pathogens or parasites that may put human health at risk because they can enter drinking water sources. In this regard, the Irish Environmental Protection Agency has reported widespread bacteriological contamination of Irish groundwater. Domestic waste water also contains nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrates that contribute to nutrient pollution of surface waters.
Under the 2006 EU Waste Framework Directive, measures must be taken to ensure that waste is recovered or disposed of without endangering human health, and without using processes or methods which could harm the environment. To ensure this, Ireland is required to introduce a system of monitoring, inspection and maintenance of individual waste water systems in the countryside. This system of inspections and its financing aspects consistent with the polluter pays principle are at the discretion of the Irish government.
In October 2009, the European Court of Justice ruled that Ireland was failing to comply with the EU Waste Framework Directive (except in County Cavan) in relation to septic tanks.
In November 2010, the European Commission sent a formal letter of notice under ongoing infringement proceedings urging Ireland to comply with the 2009 European Court of Justice ruling on septic tanks. No legal measures had been adopted to ensure that septic tanks were subject to adequate checks and inspections to protect human health and the environment. The letter noted that if Ireland failed to act, the Commission could refer the case back to the Court and request financial penalties. In May 2011, the Commission referred the issue back to the Court of Justice requesting the imposition of fines and penalties as long as these infringements persist.