This might not be the nicest subject to ever feature on this Blog – but it’s important stuff.
Kate Bailey – Catchment Partnership Officer
The National Park Authority is a partner in the Esk and Coastal Streams Catchment Partnership. All partners have an interest in improving water quality in the catchment.
The Catchment Partnership is therefore very happy to be involved in the Call of Nature Yorkshire campaign which aims to reduce inadvertent pollution getting into rivers and the sea when off-mains sewage systems aren’t maintained as they need to be. In rural areas, like the Esk and Coastal Streams catchment, individual homes/farms and small settlements are often not connected to the mains sewage network and so waste – from toilets, sinks, showers, baths, washing machines, dishwashers – is contained in cesspits, or treated in septic tanks or package sewage treatment plants, on site.
- Cesspits are very basic, these tanks hold waste without any treatment. They need to be emptied regularly and the waste removed.
- Septic tanks hold waste water where it settles and separates with sludge at the bottom and liquid at the top. Bacteria breaks down the organic matter in the tank. The effluent at the top drains onto a soak away area so that other bacteria in the soil can break down the remaining pollutants. The effluent cannot be discharged directly into a watercourse (which include ditches, field drains, small streams, rivers, lakes etc)
- Package treatment works are a bit more technical than septic tanks. An electric pump brings in air which helps bacteria breaks down organic matter more effectively. This means under certain conditions that effluent can be discharged into a watercourse.
The Call of Nature Yorkshire campaign is raising awareness of the potential problems if these off-mains systems aren’t maintained properly and providing guidance on maintenance.
Local surveys by the Environment Agency have shown elevated levels of phosphates in certain areas of the catchment, and this could be partly due to individual sewage treatment systems and the domestic detergents and human sewage they’re supposed to treat. This isn’t the only issue; diffuse pollution from agriculture e.g. fertiliser, manure and slurry can also cause elevated nutrient levels in watercourses. Phosphate acts as a nutrient and can trigger excessive plant growth in rivers and streams. This depletes the oxygen in the water, smothers the river bed and blocks out the sunlight damaging these important ecosystems. The Glaisdale Beck Restoration Project and the Biffa funded Esk Project is working with farmers to tackle agricultural impacts. But that leaves the accidental domestic waste.
General binding rules were introduced in 2015 and apply to people who are not connected to the mains sewage network. All tanks need to be maintained to prevent leakage and to be emptied regularly to prevent over flow, any faults should be fixed immediately and maximum discharge volumes should not be exceeded (without a specific permit). If waste water that hasn’t been adequately treated gets out, it can end up polluting watercourses and beaches so damaging everyone’s environment and the nutrients and sewage released can harm both humans and wildlife. It’s much easier to maintain a off-mains system correctly than replace it when it fails. A poorly maintained system can also have a detrimental effect on the value of the property and so affect a house sale. Dark smelly liquid, sewage fungus (a slimy grey growth), a backing up toilet and a poorly-draining soak away are all indications that there is something wrong.
How to reduce domestic phosphates getting into local watercourses wherever you are (some of these suggestions are applicable if you do or don’t have an off-mains sewage treatment system):
- Make sure you know how your own system works and where it is located
- Make sure tanks are emptied regularly (by a licensed company) to ensure the lower layer of sludge doesn’t build up
- Check all parts of your system regularly – make sure any faults with the system are fixed immediately
- Make sure your system can manage the amount of waste being produced by the household – old tanks were not designed to manage the volumes used now e.g. washing machines, dishwashers. You might need to invest in a new system.
- Don’t connect rainwater drainage pipes or guttering into an off-mains system
- If possible space out your use of a washing machine and a dishwasher so the waste water/detergent isn’t entering the system at the same time.
- Use ‘environmentally friendly’ products – only use small amounts.
- Only use minimum amounts of bleach or disinfectant – these chemicals kill bacteria that is actually vial to breaking down waste
- Don’t flush solid items down the toilet which can block the system and lead to overflow.
- Don’t pour grease/cooking oil down the sink. Don’t pour paints or solvents or down the drains.
If you do have one of these off-mains sewage treatment systems and would like further information please can call the Environment Agency on 03708 506 506. The Call of Nature Yorkshire website also has lots of useful fact sheets with further information.