MORE than 400,000 homeowners will be forced to buy a licence for their septic tank under new laws planned for next year.
Yesterday, Environment Minister John Gormley said he would introduce a licensing and inspection system for septic tanks, which will affect 440,000 homes across the country, mostly in rural areas.
The department has not yet decided how much a licence will cost, but in Scotland similar licences cost €82.
And some homeowners could be forced to replace their tanks if the licensing authority decides they are not working properly and pose a risk to public health.
Sources said that tanks located on waterlogged sites or with clay soil may have to be replaced at a cost of up to €4,000 per tank.
The move, which is a commitment in the Renewed Programme for Government, comes after the European Court of Justice ruled yesterday that Ireland had broken EU law for failing to enact legislation to deal with domestic wastewater from septic tanks and other treatment systems.
Homeowners currently have a "duty of care" but, under a new licensing system, a public body -- such as a local authority -- will inspect tanks to ensure they are not causing pollution.
Fines of up to €5,000 or three months' imprisonment can currently be imposed for not ensuring the wastewater is properly treated. Penalties are likely to be of a similar order under the new system.
Households not served by public sewers usually depend on septic tank systems to treat and dispose of wastewater.
A typical tank takes wastewater from a toilet, bath, kitchen and washing machine.
Heavy solids settle to the bottom where bacteria partially decompose them into sludge, and tanks are pumped to prevent overflowing.
Excess wastewater is filtered through the soil where it is absorbed. If tanks overflow or are not maintained, they can cause contamination of groundwater, rivers and streams with potentially dangerous bugs, including e-coli.
Yesterday, Mr Gormley said he would be considering the court's judgment and introducing a licensing system.
"We know that in far too many instances septic tanks or on-site sewage treatment systems are causing pollution. The absence of a licensing and inspection system is a major weakness in our overall environmental management structures," he said.