The Fictitious Septic Charge Debate
The decision by the Minister of the Environment, Community and Local Government Phil Hogan to introduce a licensing and registration system for Ireland’s estimated 440,000 private waste water treatment systems (septic tanks) has been rounded on by the usual suspects (IFA, Marian Harkin, random councillors etc) evoking the customary rebuke that the new system is an unjust and discriminatory attack on rural Ireland. The new regime will require each household with a septic tank to register with their local authority accompanied by registration fee which, according to the Minister, will be ‘no more than €50’. MEP Harkin, in particular, has been touring Ireland whipping up support for what she sees an inequitable tax on rural dwellers while city folk pay nothing.
Looking at the issue rationally, it must appear strange to anyone but the most the biased and unthinking observer that we have over 440,000 septic tanks in the State which are entirely unregulated. Nobody knows where they are or whether they are working properly. The effluent arising from an average single house is approximately 250,000 litres per annum. Nationally, this equates to approximately 270 million litres of unregulated wastewater being discharged to the Irish countryside each day. 57% of all groundwater samples taken by the EPA showed faecal contamination. The two most likely causes of faecal contamination, a major source of E.Coli are land spreading of animal manures and poorly sited wastewater treatment systems. Plainly speaking, this means that many Irish people regularly drink their own (or their neighbours) sh*t.
Myth # 1 – Hogan has independently dreamt this idea up as a stealth tax.
Now I am no fan of the current Minister but I think it is fair to say that, himself having forged his political power base peddling rural paranoia, he would not be introducing this new system if he was not obliged to do so by the ‘big stick’ of the EU. Ireland lost yet another European Court of Justice (C-188/08) ruling in October 2008 over our failure to properly transpose the EU Waste Directive. Given that the ECJ ruling was originally handed down over two years ago the current Minister seems to be unable to contain his ire for the ‘so called environmentalist’ former Minister John Gormley for landing him with this hospitable pass. If only the Green’s could have brought in this charge he could have safely cried foul and rural ethnic cleansing from the opposition benches. The Minister clearly feels uncomfortable being an ‘environmentalist’ and despite the rhetoric in his press release highlighting the fundamental importance of protecting Ireland’s water quality, proactive environmental policies very rarely happens in Ireland unless dragged kicking and screaming trough the ECJ. Despite the fact that we always staunchly defend our inaction in the ECJ at great public expense we never win. Ireland’s record in implementing EU environmental law is even more embarrassing than our record in prudent fiscal management. Unfortunately few notice enough to care (or care enough to notice).
Myth # 2 – Only Rural Dwellers Will Pay for Sewage Treatment While Urban Dwellers Pay Nothing
The rural lobby contend that a €50 euro charge every five years is an unfair additional tax on rural dwellers only while urban dwellers pay nothing for the huge capital and energy intensive waste-water treatment plants. Furthermore, the contention goes that it is urban centres rather than rural areas where the majority of water pollution arises.
Again, myth covers reality. The vast majority urban dwellers have paid a very substantial contribution to waste water infrastructure and other services through Section 48 development contributions. This levy (tax) is built into the price of the house when purchased. You can take any example of a S.48 Development Contribution Scheme nationally to demonstrate this fact. I have taken County Fingal as an example of a county with a large urban population together with a large rural area. In County Fingal urban dwellers pay €50 euro per square metre for waste water services. Based on an average house size in Fingal in 2011 of 121 square metres this equates to €6,050 per dwelling. Rural dwellings pay nothing. The fact that local authorities elected not to invest this money in proper waste-water infrastructure is irrelevant (and reckless) – the urban dweller has paid.
Based on the registration fee being suggested by Hogan of €50 every five years (although I strongly suspect this is a case of ‘softly softly’) the average house in Fingal has paid an equivalent of 605 years. This same equation can be repeated across the country where in all cases rural dwellers pay nothing. The standard retort from rural politicians and lobby groups is, given the fact that the cost of a private waste water treatment plant is borne solely by the rural dweller, why should they contribute? The reason is simple – when the system fails due to lack of upkeep, the cost of the clean-up is borne by the whole of society. With water quality standards now set by EU Law these costs can be very significant and the fines for failure to comply equally so.