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Septic Tank Pollution Statistics Reveal the Need to Resirict Rual House Building in Northern Ireland

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Friends of the Earth are urging the Government to stand firm on the ‘bungalow blight’ controversy as shocking new figures reveal the dreadful extent of septic tank pollution from rural houses.

Over 60 per cent of septic tank discharges in the Lough Neagh area are reaching watercourses, including many rivers popular with anglers. This septic effluent is causing serious water pollution.

These statistics come as the Assembly begins to debate an SDLP motion calling on the Secretary of State to scrap a new policy which would restrict the number of single dwellings built in the Northern Ireland countryside. Friends of the Earth is highlighting evidence contained in a recent report by local environment watchdog, the Council for Nature Conservation and the Countryside. It found that:
  • 60% of septic tank discharges in the Lough Neagh area are reaching surface waters.
  • 17% of all homes in Northern Ireland have septic tanks, compared with just 4% in the UK.
  • There are currently more than 100,000 septic tanks in Northern Ireland
  • 12% of phosphate pollution reaching Lough Erne comes from septic tanks.
  • 14% of phosphate pollution reaching Lough Neagh comes from septic tanks.
  • Many septic tanks are not emptied of sludge once a year and this number being emptied regularly is likely to diminish when charges are introduced as part of the Water Reform process. 
  • About 90 per cent of water bodies in Northern Ireland are at risk of not achieving the water quality standards required by the Water Framework Directive. [Hefty fines can be imposed for non-compliance with European Directives.]

The introduction of organic material such as human sewage into watercourses reduces the amount of dissolved oxygen available for fish and other aquatic life. Also, nutrient enrichment stimulates the growth of algae, a green ‘slime’ on the surface of the water which prevents light penetration. In the worst cases, water quality can be diminished to the point where a river is dead and has no living organisms.

Friends of the Earth Campaigner Lisa Fagan said the report’s findings upheld the need for the new policy on single dwellings in the countryside:

“Septic tanks which are poorly sited or badly maintained are spewing human sewage into loughs, rivers, streams and sheughs. Water pollution undermines the future of angling, watersports and tourism, threatening the viability of the rural economy. Government must stand firm on its plan to restrict the number of new houses serviced by non-mains sewerage.”

Ms Fagan concluded with a reference to today’s Assembly debate at Stormont:

“Assembly members must consider the evidence base for the new policy, including the impact of septic tank pollution on water quality. Of course there has been uproar from opponents of the new policy, in
particular those farmers and property speculators who are intent on developing the countryside for profit. But elected representatives must act in interests of the many, not the few. Indeed, we believe there exists a silent majority, in both rural and urban areas, which supports the new policy.”

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