In the Sticks: A regular column by Shirley Clerkin
Ridiculous recent suggestions that, for a fee, hostelries should take on all Dublin City’s public-lavatory functions sparked a memory of the old public toilets at Stephen’s Green, with the bottle green doors and the slot for the coin. I remembered in particular the gymnastic tactics employed by depositors to avoid spending a penny. Connolly Station – the portal to the sticks – too mysteriously abandoned a few years ago its charge of 20 cent per call of nature. I imagine that all the leapfrogging over the little hurdle to avoid the toll was creating more accidents than the provision of public conveniences was intended to prevent.
As a nation, we don’t like to pay to pee. ‘Toilets are for the use of patrons only’ diktats have resulted in much agony, unnecessary spending and general sneaking around. At least if you are caught short in the sticks, you might hop over a gate and pee in the hedge without causing too much of a sensation. Unless of course, you are part of an entire bus load needing relief on the way to a festival.
While once most of the populace slept on unforgiving bolster pillows and relied on the pot for relief, their undiluted contents later disposed into the gutter or flung at a tree, things have changed.
Mugs of water fresh from the well once quenched many a thirst, and – innocents – we never foresaw a time when much well water would be undrinkable. There was water everywhere in the country for god’s sake. Like the environmental proverb ‘the tragedy of the commons’, that tells the lesson of the damage to our natural resources when they are treated as belonging to no-one, we did exactly that for years in Ireland and we are only starting to smarten.
A friend told me that when she purchased her dream home she was agog to find that she was also the owner of a well and a septic tank. Hailing from London, the source of her water and sink for her waste had always been out of sight, and out of mind. Another friend dates all modernity to Thomas Crapper’s invention which flushed our consequentiality clean away. Our septic tanks were hidden too, a dirty secret lurking at the bottom of the garden. Ireland has 485,000 septic tanks compared with 800,000 in England and Wales combined. Proportionally, that is some difference and represents a headache of individual waste streams.
Our national light-bulb moment is attributable to the threat of hefty EU fines which a government might have risked shouldering in the good times, but certainly not now. The EU Directive which has compelled the government to create a register of septic tanks has had as its motivation since 1975 the prevention of pollution due to human waste. We have been in breach of this directive for over 30 years, so the European Court of Justice had every right to threaten Ireland with a lump-sum fine and daily fines of €26,000 in order to get some movement on the issue.
The registration charge has not been imposed by the EU, but by the government to help fund the remedy. The fee is not a licence to pee. It’s about grounding the right to clean water. Ireland has failed to meet its obligations to enforce standards in the emissions of human waste. Each one of the septic tanks or single waste-treatment units is a potential hazard to human health and the environment if it does not function properly. alway city in 2007 was left without potable water for three months due to an outbreak of cryptosporidium, attributable to septic tank discharges, among other things.
The official publicity surrounding the registration scheme emphasises the benefits of clean water: its connection to environment, health and jobs. Most people as far as I can see are willing to play their part by registering and making friends with their septic tank, but others have tried to turn it into an issue of inequality between rural and urban.
As usual, some factions have found it productive to stir the shit; inevitably creating the gas necessary to attract the attention of flaccid politicians. The pressure put on the Minister for the Environment clearly led to the reduction of the fee from €50 to €5 for early registrations. But no doubt by default, this fee reduction has ensured quick progress in building up a register, something that was needed to reassure the European Commission that there is progress.
251,000 systems were registered at the reduced rate, and at €5 a pop, this amounts to €1.25 million instead of over €12 million. Given that the fee was to cover the costs of administering the registration system and more crucially the management of the risk-based inspections, the rest of the money will have to come from elsewhere.
But an alternate view could consider this €1.25 million as insurance against the clocking up of daily fines which very quickly could become like an unserviceable mortgage. Many of us have been spared €45 hard cash for the moment, but no doubt we shall end up paying it in the swings and roundabouts.
So what should we do with our septic tanks? The Dee Catchment Partnership in England has used the funly acronymic TANK in its campaign to promote the management of its 4,000 septic tanks. TIDY up the site, locate and check pipes and outfalls, make sure pipes are not blocked or broken and that areas around the tank and soakway are always accessible. AVOID harsh chemicals: no bleach or disinfectant down the drains which lead to your septic tank. NO rain-water or surface-water must enter the tank. KEEP it maintained, by emptying and desludging regularly. Under the new rules in Ireland, the septic tanks must be de-sludged at least every three years by a registered company and you must keep proof or a receipt of this for five years. The main thing is that our septic tanks are fit for purpose and do not pollute our environment by discharging waste anywhere it shouldn’t go.
The call of nature is unpreventable. Let’s listen properly to all her calls and do right by our septic tanks and waste water treatment systems to protect our environment, our health and our water quality. Think of the fish.