FARMERS who pollute rivers with slurry will be jailed for a year and face a €500,000 fine under tough new laws.
Currently the maximum fine in €3,000 in the district court and a one-month jail term.
But now Environment Minister John Gormley has cleared the way for farmers to be brought before the Circuit Criminal Court and put behind bars if they breach EU rules.
The new regulations were introduced last week and took immediate effect but were not publicly announced.
Farmyard slurries and fertilisers have been implicated in recent bouts of serious tap water contamination.
Mr Gormley said the maximum fines permitted by the original nitrates regulations were disproportionately low and did not reflect the potential gravity of offences.
There would now be a more realistic range of fines which can be applied by the courts.
The courts will decide the appropriate level of penalty in any particular case having regard to all the circumstances.
Ireland had finally been brought into compliance with the EU Nitrates Directive dating back to 1991, the minister added.