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Articles Environmental Law 19th Feb 2015

Environmental Permits & Penalties: A small sewage discharges in groundwater source protection zone 1

Did you know that if your property is located within groundwater source protection zone 1 (“SPZ1”) and you have not got a permit for your septic tank or sewage treatment system then you will be in breach of environmental legislation and may be at risk of a serious penalty?

The Environment Agency designates three groundwater source protection zones for wells, springs or boreholes used for domestic or food production water supplies. According to the Environment Agency, “SPZ1 is the innermost of these zones representing the area around the supply source that is most vulnerable to pollution”. Landowners can use an interactive map on the Environment Agency website to determine whether their property is located within SPZ1.

The requirement for a permit for small sewage discharges in SPZ1 has existed since the Water Resources Act 1991, and the former Groundwater Regulations of 1998 and 2009. Unfortunately the new exemptions brought in under the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2010 for small sewage discharges do not apply to discharges in SPZ1. DEFRA has noted that a number of households are making a small domestic sewage discharge without an environmental permit.

Operating without an environmental permit is an offence under section 12(1) of the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2010. Furthermore, section 38(6) of the regulations states that if the liability of the current owner is due to a default of another person, then that other person is also guilty of the same offence and can be punished accordingly. This means that if you sell your property without obtaining the correct permit, and enforcement action is taken against the new owner, you could still be held liable for your omission to obtain a permit and punished along with, or instead of, the new owner. It is therefore in your best interests to regularise the position before any sale of your property takes place, and get a proper environmental permit in place for the property for the future.


The penalty on summary conviction for failing to obtain an environmental permit is a fine of up to £50,000 or imprisonment for up to 12 months, or both. The penalty on conviction on indictment is the same fine or imprisonment for up to 5 years, or both. These are serious penalties.

We have enquired of the Environment Agency as to whether landowners wishing to regularise their sewage arrangements would be likely to be the subject of penalties if they made an application for an environmental permit.

The off records comment from the Environment Agency was that it wants people to do the right thing, including getting the correct permits, and is not in the habit of looking back at past misdemeanours in order to punish people. Each case will be a question of fact, and the Environment Agency is entitled to take action for breach of the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2010.

The content of this page is a summary of the law in force at the date of publication and is not exhaustive, nor does it contain definitive advice. Specialist legal advice should be sought in relation to any queries that may arise.

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