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Friends of the Earth was today urging Government to stand firm on the 'bungalow blight' controversy as shocking new figures reveal the extent of septic tank pollution from rural dwellings.  60 per cent of septic tank discharges in the Lough Neagh area are reaching surface waters, including many rivers popular with anglers.  Septic tanks are used to treat domestic sewage from dispersed rural dwellings not connected to a main sewer.

The findings come as the Assembly prepares to debate an SDLP motion [1] calling on the Secretary of State to scrap a new policy [2] which would restrict the number of single dwellings built in the Northern Ireland countryside.  The green pressure group is highlighting evidence contained in a recent report [3] by local environment watchdog, the Council for Nature Conservation and the Countryside [4].  It found that:

  1. An estimated 60 per cent of septic tank discharges in the Lough Neagh area are reaching surface waters.
  2. 17 per cent of homes in Northern Ireland use septic tanks, compared with a UK average of just 4 per cent.
  3. There are currently more than 100,000 septic tanks in Northern Ireland [5].
  4. 12 per cent of phosphate pollution reaching Lough Erne comes from septic tanks [6].
  5. 14 per cent of phosphate pollution reaching Lough Neagh comes from septic tanks [7].
  6. Many septic tanks are not regularly emptied of sludge [8].
  7. The number being emptied regularly is likely to diminish when charges are introduced as part of the Water Reform process.
  8. 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 to water of organic material such as human sewage reduces the amount of dissolved oxygen available for fish and other aquatic life.  Also, nutrient enrichment stimulates the growth of algae,
essentially a green 'slime' on the surface of the water which prevents light penetration.  In the worst cases, water quality can be eroded to the point where a river is devoid of any living organism.

Commenting, Friends of the Earth Campaigner Lisa Fagan said the report's findings underlined 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."


[1] (back) The following motion, tabled by the SDLP, is due for debate on Tuesday 23 May 2006:
That this Assembly condemns the unilateral method by which the document 'Draft PPS14' was introduced and calls on the Secretary of State to cease implementation of PPS14 pending a comprehensive review of rural planning policy to develop a balanced policy for the sustainability of rural society and the environment.  That, in the interim, all rural planning applications received since 16 March 2006 be considered under the application policy: A Planning Strategy for Rural Northern Ireland.

[2] (back) Draft Planning Policy Statement 14 (Draft PPS14), Sustainable Development in the Countryside was published on 16 March 2006 by the Department for Regional Development.  It introduces a presumption
against new, one-off houses being built outside towns and villages, in the open countryside.

[3] (back) Seventh Report of the Council for Nature Conservation and the Countryside, 2003-2006

[4] (back) The Council for Nature Conservation and the Countryside (CNCC) is a Statutory Advisory Council appointed by the Northern Ireland Environment Minister to advise Government on nature conservation matters.

[5] (back) Extrapolated from 90,000, the figure quoted in the CNCC report. 90,000 was the figure for 2000, since when there has been significant additional housing constructed in the open countryside.

[6] (back) Lough Erne suffers from nutrient enrichment and has been designated eutrophic.

[7] (back) Lough Neagh suffers from nutrient enrichment and has been designated hypertrophic.

[8] (back) CNCC report 'an apparent significant disparity' between the number of septic tanks registered with DOE and the number being emptied regularly by Water Service.

For further information, please contact Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland on 028 9023 3488.


Published by Friends of the Earth Trust