Since writing this article in June, the Environment Agency has published a position statement .
In summary, the current system of registration is on hold pending a consultation process, the results of which are to be announced in the next few weeks. Septic tanks which do not fall within the exemption DO still need to be registered now for a permit, but as explained below, it is likely that most systems are exempt.
It may well be that the system of registration for exemptions is simplified and the deadline extended. Therefore unless your tank does not fall within the exemption, you may wish to wait for the further Environment Agency announcement.
This article will be updated further following that announcement.
New Regulations for users of septic tanks and private sewage treatment systems - original article
Is your house on mains drainage? If not, then chances are that your property has either a septic tank or a sewage treatment plant (such as a "Klargester" bio disc plant). If this is the case then you need to read on and be aware of the new regulations introduced requiring both existing and new septic tanks and treatment systems to have an environmental permit from the Environment Agency.
Ground Water Discharge
If your system discharges under two cubic metres a day to ground water (for example via a drainage field or soakaway) and you cannot reasonably connect to the public sewer, your property may be exempt from having to get a permit. As a rough guide, the average four-bedroom house discharges about 1 cubic metre per day.
However, even if you are exempt, you still need to register with the Environment Agency. Registration is free, but you must ensure that your property is registered with the Environment Agency by 1 January 2012.
If you already have a valid consent, you will not need to reapply and your existing consent will become either an exemption or a permit to discharge. It is advisable to check that your property is registered with the Environment Agency well before the deadline. Don't just assume that your system is registered with the Environment Agency. You can telephone the Environment Agency's customer service line on 08708 506 506 to check if your system is registered.
Surface Water Discharge
If your system discharges treated sewage effluent to surface water (such as a river, stream, estuary or the sea) it must be registered with the Environment Agency now.
If your system discharges five cubic metres or less per day, it may be eligible for an exemption rather than needing a permit (unless a valid consent already exists). Five cubic metres is roughly equivalent to what an average eight bedroom house would produce daily. Again, you should check now whether you have a valid consent, and if not, apply for an exemption or permit.
As above, registration for an exemption is free and can be made online or by paper. The Environment Agency charges a one-off fee for a permit application (to cover the costs of a risk assessment of the discharge).
Cess Pools and Pits
Cess pools and pits which are self contained and do not discharge into the environment do not need to be registered with the Environment Agency.
The above sets out the main requirements for checking whether your property is likely to be eligible for an exemption or a permit to discharge. There are however other more detailed requirements including the proximity of the house to foul sewers, tidal waters, conservation areas - and the type of system you have. The full list of requirements and guidance is available from the Environment Agency website (www.environment-agency.gov.uk), you may want to seek legal advice if you are unsure.
Penalties for breach
The new regulations make it illegal to discharge sewage without registering an exemption or permit to discharge. The penalties for breach are serious and include a fine up to £50,000 - a lot of money down the drain! You could even be imprisoned for up to 12 months.
You should therefore check now whether your septic tank or sewage treatment system has a valid permit or is registered as exempt. If not, you will need to register your property immediately if it discharges to a river or stream, or by 1 January 2012 for other systems.
Buying or selling a property
If you are considering buying a property with a septic tank or treatment plant, you and your solicitors should check that the system has already been registered or is exempt. You should also ask the buyer for the records of repair and maintenance.
If you are selling a property with a septic tank or treatment plant, you should pass on details of the exemption or permit to the new buyer, as well as your records of repair and maintenance. If selling imminently, you must get the paperwork in order now to ensure there are no possible delays.
All property owners with a tank or system should carry out regular inspections and maintenance and keep records for at least five years.
If you are in any doubt about your system and whether your property has a valid exemption or permit, you should seek legal advice.