The French Government has insisted on a programme of inspection and upgrading of all septic tank sewage systems, but local mayors have recently expressed doubts that either can be achieved.
The use of a septic tank (or similar) for domestic sewage treatment is widespread in France, with around 40% of local mayors stating that this is the main form of sewage treatment in their commune.
Nevertheless, in the past the systems have been poorly regulated, with no prior approval necessarily required for the installation of a system, and inadequate specification of standards for installation and maintenance.
Whilst local authorities have responsibility for overseeing such systems, many have lacked the financial and technical resources to be able to do so. The lack of a clear regulatory regime has also made it difficult for them to enforce proper standards.
In theory, by 2005 all local authorities should have established a specific agency, called a Service Public de l´Assainissement Non Collectif (SPANC) to undertake these responsibilities, but in a recent survey by pollsters TNS Sofres, only around half of the local mayors admitted that such a body was operational in their area.
In the same survey, a majority of mayors also expressed concern that they were not going to be able to undertake a full inspection of septic tank systems by 2012, as required by the Government. They cited the lack of financial or technical resources to be able to do so.
Even where mayors thought they would be able to undertake the survey work, three quarters of them considered that they would not have the resources to impose new systems on existing owners, even less to install a collective public system in the area.
Some local authorities have begun to undertake these surveys, although from the reports we have received from a number of our readers who have had such visits, the inspection would appear to be a rather perfunctory one, and with no-one expressing any real concern that their system would need to be changed. Local councils seem to be imposing a small charge of circa €100 for the visit.
In theory, owners can be required to upgrade the system, but many will lack the resources to be able to do so and, for political reasons, the local councils are reluctant to use powers of the enforcement. The mayors are arguing that there should be a system of financial assistance in place, with funds from central government to assist those who will not be able to meet the costs.
Whilst the Government has remained silent on the issue of financial support, they have stated that it is their intention to establish a clearer legal and technical framework for septic tank installations, with proposals scheduled to appear within the next few months.