THE EUROPEAN Court of Justice has reprimanded Ireland for not properly implementing EU rules on waste water in rural areas, which the European Commission said has caused “serious damage to the environment”.
In its judgment the EU court, which sits in Luxembourg, took the European Commission’s side, which said there were “serious shortcomings” in the way septic tanks and other private waste water treatment systems are installed and maintained throughout the countryside.
The European Court said that Ireland – with the exception of Co Cavan, which introduced water pollution bylaws in 2004 – had failed to properly implement a 1975 EU directive on waste. The Government has been ordered to pay its own costs and three-quarters of those incurred by the EU executive in the case.
Minister for the Environment John Gormley said in reaction to the judgment, “We know that in far too many instances septic tanks or onsite sewage treatment systems are causing pollution. The absence of a licensing and inspection system is a major weakness in our overall environmental management structures and this needs to be addressed.” He said he was launching a public consultation to look into the issue.
An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report on drinking water released this year found that the quality of private water supplies was inferior to those maintained by public authorities. It says that over 31 per cent of private group water schemes were contaminated with E. coli at least once during 2007 (184 out of 586).
However, Labour Party MEP Nessa Childers, the only Irish member of the European Parliament’s environment committee, described the court’s ruling as a “damning indictment” of the Government’s and Minister for the Environment John Gormley’s “green credentials”.
“The Greens should explain why a commitment in the new programme for government to introduce a scheme for the licensing and inspection of septic tanks and waste water treatment systems has been tarted-up and cynically presented as a new policy departure,” she said.
Gerard O’Leary of the EPA’s environmental enforcement office said proper treatment of waste water from septic tanks and other systems was a public health issue.
“If these systems are not designed and don’t dispose of the effluent properly, it’s lodged on your site, and . . . you can guarantee that E. coli is present.”
He said the EPA had been identifying concerns in drinking water reports for several years. More than 400,000 Irish homes had septic tanks in 2006, according to census data, due to the large number of scattered settlements in rural areas.