Making a discharge to groundwater or surface waters usually requires an environmental permit. However, there is an exemption for small sewage discharges from domestic septic tanks and small domestic package sewage treatment plants under the Environmental Permitting regime.
Exempt small sewage discharges previously had to be registered however, the registration scheme has been replaced by the general binding rules. This article covers the rules in England, but not Wales where the rules differ slightly.
The rules governing small domestic sewage discharges
In England, the requirements to qualify for an exemption were simplified on 1 January 2015 when the requirement to register an exempt discharge was dispensed with. The general binding rules now set out the conditions that must be met in order for a discharge to qualify for the exemption from the requirement to have an environmental permit. The general binding rules repeat and expand on the Environmental Permitting Regulations 2016 (the “EP Regulations 2016”), which came into force on 1 January 2017, which regulate discharges to groundwater and surface waters.
Septic tanks outside of the exemption
As mentioned above, septic tanks that discharge to surface waters are not exempt. The Environment Agency guidance indicates that these must be replaced or upgraded as soon as possible, meaning plans to carry out the replacement or upgrade must be in place within a reasonable timescale (typically 12 months).
Although such discharges are no longer exempt, a discharge from a septic tank to surface waters may already hold an existing valid environmental permit from before the change in regulation. Where this is the case, the discharge can continue within the conditions of that permit unless and until the permit is reviewed and then either revoked or varied.
Things to consider with residential property
If you are selling a property that has a small domestic sewage discharge on the land, you must provide written information to the buyer stating this, describing the sewage treatment plant or septic tank and setting out maintenance requirements. If you are buying such a property, you should be aware that you should expect such information to be provided.
If a property has a septic tank that discharges directly to surface water, as mentioned above, replacement or upgrade will be required within a reasonable timescale. Responsibility for this should be discussed between the buyer and seller as a condition of sale.