The effect of risk perception, risk
communication and attitudes towards
enforcement of policy on the maintenance
of Domestic Waste Water Treatment
By Joseph Comerford
1.1 DWWTS and the Republic of Ireland..............................................................................5
1.2 Regulatory framework for DWWTS in Ireland ...............................................................7
1.3 Research objective........................................................................................................10
1.4 Research questions........................................................................................................11
1.5 Structure of thesis..........................................................................................................11
2.0 Risk perception and environmental awareness .............................................................11
2.1 Risk perception as a concept.........................................................................................12
2.2 Understanding attitudes to risk and the consequences for environmental risk
communication and management ............................................................................................13
2.3 Economic incentives, the implications and influences on risk perception....................17
2.4 Environmental risk enforcement...................................................................................18
2.5 Conclusion ....................................................................................................................20
3.1 Research design ............................................................................................................21
3.2 Case study and sampling ..............................................................................................23
3.3 Interview schedule.........................................................................................................26
3.4 Data analysis.................................................................................................................27
3.5 Conclusion ....................................................................................................................28
4.0 Results and Discussion .................................................................................................29
4.1 Risk perception and environmental hazards.................................................................29
4.2 Communication of environmental risk..........................................................................33
4.3 Attitudes related to Enforcement of regulation and policy of DWWTS ........................36
5.0 Conclusion ....................................................................................................................39
Appendix B ..............................................................................................................................43
Appendix C ..............................................................................................................................49
A domestic waste water treatment system (DWWTS) is the primary method used for the
treatment and disposal of sewage from houses in rural and suburban areas that are not serviced
by a public sewer system. According to Environmental Protection Agency (2009, 2010) “the
most common form of Domestic Waste Water Treatment System in Ireland consists of a septic
tank providing primary treatment, followed by secondary and tertiary treatment via a subsoil
percolation system.” A basic DWWTS includes an initial settling tank and often a secondary
tank which is linked to a series of pipes which distribute the effluent evenly and safely across
an area of land known as a percolation area. The pipes in the percolation area contain a series
of holes which allow for the distribution of effluent into trenches often filled with gravel.
Maintenance of DWWTS is extremely important as there can be significant consequences for
not doing so such as adverse environmental and potential human health risks.
DWWTS ensure the treatment of wastewater to minimise contamination of soils and water
bodies, the prevention of direct discharge of untreated wastewater to the groundwater or surface
water, the protection of humans from contact with wastewater, the keeping away of animals,
insects, and vermin from contact with waste water and the reduction of the generation of foul
odours, (Environmental Protection Agency 2013a). Naughton (2014) states that “improperly
installed or poorly maintained Domestic Waste Water Treatment Systems represent a
significant source of nutrients and enteric pathogens, particularly in rural areas. The
protection of groundwater resources from such contamination is imperative for the effective
management of risks posed to both human health and the environment.”
There are many factors that can lead to the failure or malfunction of a DWWTS. These
factors include the siting and design of the system, the type of subsoil, inadequate ventilation
of drains, sagging or blocked inlet drains, tank full of sludge, inefficient or undersized tank,
deliberate overflow connection made, proliferation of tanks, heavy incidents of rain and high
water table (Butler and Payne 1993, Laak 1980). One of the most common causes of this
malfunctioning relate to the drainage field, which may be blocked or inadequate, and to the
tank being full of sludge, which itself can cause significant blockage of the drainage field
(Butler and Payne 1993). The type of soil a DWWTS is percolating to can also be a significant
factor in the functioning of the system. Results of a study conducted by Gill et al (2009) show
that soil type can have a significant influence on the effects of the percolation of DWWTS. The
study identifies that phosphate is largely removed by the subsoil’s as a result of the mineralogy
of the respective soils, meaning that the effects of the effluent on water courses changes,
depending on the type of soil the DWWTS is percolating. Also those DWWTS tested with a
secondary treatment system significantly reduced their impact on the environment. This
highlights the fact that sub-soil type and design of DWWTS are two key factors in reducing
the effect of DWWTS on water quality.
Poorly maintained DWWTS can have a harmful and serious adverse impact on the
environment, particular regarding water quality and also human health. According to Asano
and Cotruvo (2004, 1943) “adverse health risks could result from the introduction of pathogens
into groundwater that is eventually to be consumed by the public.” Pathogenic organisms
capable of causing water-borne illnesses include bacteria (e.g., E. coli, Salmonella, Shigella,
Campylobacter and Yersinia), enteric viruses (e.g., noroviruses, rotaviruses and hepatitis A
and E viruses) and protozoa (e.g., Giardia and Cryptosporidium). The Environmental
Protection Agency (2015) state the risk to human health from pathogens in waters impacted by
domestic waste water is significantly higher in areas with a high density of systems and
inadequate percolation; and in vulnerable areas with private wells. These vulnerable areas are
classified by Environmental Protection Agency as areas of high risk of water source
contamination from DWWTS.
In terms of the environment, poorly maintained DWWTS can have serious negative
impacts including eutrophication of water courses and groundwater which can cause fish kills
and algal blooms. Eutrophication occurs when excess nitrogen N or phosphorous P gains access
to the water course. Eutrophication is defined by Rabalais et al (2009, 1528), “as the increased
rate of primary production and accumulation of organic matter, usually results from the
excessive addition of nutrients, and results in undesirable changes in ecosystems.
Eutrophication is a global phenomenon, with significant effects on food webs, water quality,
and aquatic chemistry.”
The Environmental Protection Agency (2015) state that “there is an onus on the owner of
a treatment system to ensure that their system does not, or is not likely to, constitute a risk to
human health or the environment.” As shown by Hynds et al (2013, 279) “no data currently
exist regarding the levels of awareness of private groundwater users in Ireland of the health
impacts from contaminated water supplies” If as Hynds (2013) points out, there is no data
regarding levels of awareness of private groundwater users then could the same be said for
DWWTS and their proper maintenance.
This study aims to address this gap in the knowledge regarding of the levels of awareness
around proper maintenance of DWWTS and add to current studies in the area surrounding
DWWTS maintenance. There are a number of factors that may influence proper maintenance
and operation. This study shall focus on the effects of risk perception, behaviours and attitudes
of the public towards domestic waste water treatment systems. During this study, the
investigation will focus on the attitudes relating to the communication of risk, the behaviours
towards enforcement of policy and the levels of environmental risk perception with a particular
focus surrounding the proper maintenance and operation of domestic waste water treatment
systems. The research in this study will be qualitative in form and is conducted through a series
of semi structured interviews with households located in the case study area of Monnaseed,
Gorey, County Wexford. This is a rural area with a high density of DWWTS and a large rural
population, and is located in an area classed as very high risk by the EPA, which is a good case
study area to undertake this exploratory analyses. This qualitative method will enable the
gathering of the opinions, perception and attitudes of the general public of this rural area
towards DWWTS maintenance. The study will aim to provide data which can be used to obtain
a clearer picture of the potential negative impact DWWTS may be having on the rural
environment and add to the quantitative research already conducted on this topic. The
following section provides an overview of the Republic of Irelands relationship with DWWTS.
1.1 DWWTS and the Republic of Ireland
In the Republic of Ireland, approximately one third of the population is serviced by
Domestic Waste Water Treatment Systems (DWWTS) (Naughton 2014). There are an
estimated 497,000 DWWTS in Ireland treating waste water from single houses not connected
to a public sewer system. This waste water treatment is carried out on-site in over 80% of
households in rural areas (approximately 438,000), (CSO 2012). According to a study carried
out for the National Spatial Strategy of the Republic of Ireland, less than one third of
respondents (32%) routinely empty their septic tanks once a year as recommended. In addition
a further 32% would only empty it if there was a problem (DoEHLG 2000). An inspection
system of DWWTS which has been in operation since 2013 and is overseen by the EPA and
implemented by the local authority. A report on the inspection system carried out by the EPA
(2015) discovered that nearly half of all DWWTS systems inspected under the inspection
system have failed. These facts highlight the Republic of Ireland as being a particularly apt
example of a country which has had serious problems regarding DWWTS maintenance.
When examining the Republic of Ireland and DWWTS, the case of rural housing in
Ireland, which is closely linked to DWWTS, is certainly a factor to consider. The scattered
nature of housing, which often rely on DWWTS for waste water treatment throughout rural
Ireland highlights rural housing as a significant factor. Scott and Murray (2009) point out that
“a dispersed settlement pattern comprising single dwellings in the open countryside is a
longstanding feature of many rural areas in Ireland”. Scott and Murray (2009) also contend
that “analysis undertaken between the years of 1996 and 1999, when the Republic of Ireland
experienced an unprecedented boom in house building, suggested that over one in three houses
built in the Republic were one-off housing in the open countryside”.
The increased density and number of “one-off” rural dwellings has the potential to
significantly increase the number of DWWTS in rural areas, thus increase the impact of
domestic waste water treatment systems on the ground and surface water quality of a rural area.
During the “Celtic Tiger” years a report on housing in the Republic of Ireland was conducted
by the National Economic and Social Council (2004) which found that the housing system in
the country is operating in a dynamic but unbalanced way, and that more development was
taking place in rural areas.
In terms of the risk posed to human health and the environment, a large proportion of
the rural population rely on private wells for their fresh water supply. Groundwater sources in
the Republic of Ireland currently provide a daily drinking water supply to an estimated 26% of
the national population, with private groundwater sources supplying approximately 720,000
people or 17% of the population (EPA, 2009; CSO, 2012).
The combination of DWWTS maintenance, water quality issues and abundant rural
housing stock, have the potential to pose a serious risk to human health and the environment,
thus information concerning the perception, attitude and awareness in relation to DWWTS is
very significant. Ireland has a history of problems with water quality and contamination in rural
areas, these include incidents of cryptosporidium present in water supplies in recent years. In
2013, according to the EPA (2013b), there were 57 boil water notices and 12 water restriction
notices active in 16 counties affecting 35,831 people. The majority of these water supplies are
small private supplies. In Ireland, private wells are not inspected under any regulatory system
and it is estimated that 30% of these private wells are contaminated by E. coli arising from
animal or human waste. The HSE has reported a growing number of cases of VTEC – a
pathogenic form of E.coli. Since 2011, the HSE has reported a doubling of the number of VTEC
cases in Ireland (284 in 2011, 554 in 2012 and 704 in 2013). Ireland has highest incidence of
VTEC in Europe. Analysis of cases shows that patients are up to four times more likely to have
consumed untreated water from private wells. Two recent research studies by Bacci and
Chapman (2011) and Hynds et al. (2012) have found that 25–35% of private groundwater
sources are intermittently contaminated with faecal indicators, and therefore the level of
microbial non-compliance in private supplies is significantly higher than that of public
supplies. Taking all these issues into account, it is likely that poorly maintained DWWTS are
a contributory factor to contamination rates. Following on from this section the importance of
the regulatory framework surrounding DWWTS is clear.
1.2 Regulatory framework for DWWTS in Ireland
The Water Framework Directive (WFD) (Directive 2000/60/EC) aims to improve water
quality throughout the European Union. The objective of the Directive is to bring waters to
good status and to protect existing good and high status waters. On 29 October 2009, the
European Court of Justice found that Ireland had failed to adopt the necessary legislation to
comply with Articles 4 and 8 of Council Directive 75/442/EEC (The Waste Directive) as
regards domestic waste waters disposed of in the countryside through septic tanks and other
individual waste water treatment systems. Article 4 of the directive requires member states to
take the necessary measures to ensure that waste is recovered or disposed of without
endangering human health or without harming the environment. Article 8 of the directive
requires member states to take necessary measures to ensure that any holder of waste has it
handled by a public or private waste collector or recovers or disposes of it himself in accordance
with the provisions of the directive. The directive states that the essential objective of all
provisions relating to waste management should be the protection of human health and the
environment against harmful effects caused by the collection, transport, treatment, storage and
tipping of waste. The directive requires, inter alia, that establishment carrying out their own
waste disposal at the place of production should be subjected to appropriate periodic inspection
by the competent authorities.
In response to this ruling, Ireland introduced the Water Services (Amendment) Act
2012 to national legislation. As highlighted by EPA (2013a), the Water Services (Amendment)
Act 2012 requires water services authorities to maintain a register of domestic waste water
treatment systems in their functional areas. Under the Act, owners of domestic waste water
treatment systems are required to ensure that their systems are on the register and properly
maintained. This registration is a contribution to the protection of Ireland's ground and surface
waters. All septic tanks and other types of treatment and disposal systems for domestic waste
water were to be registered not later than 1st February 2013. The EPA are responsible for
overseeing this registration and inspection system, whilst the local authorities are responsible
the implementation of both the registration and inspection of systems. The maintenance
requirements for households as specified by the EPA include, visual inspections, de-sludging
of tanks on a regular basis, ensuring that their system is not affected by or contacted by surface
water runoff or rainwater and to insure that no effluent from their DWWTS has a negative
impact on the environment or human health.
The national inspection programme for DWWTS, requires that local authorities inspect
a minimum of 1,000 septic tank systems nationally within the first year (between the 1st July
2013 and 2014). Each county was allocated a specific number of inspections based on the
county’s risk status in the risk based assessment carried out by the EPA. This is because the
Inspection Plan includes a risk based approach with more inspections being carried out in the
highest risk areas having regard to sensitive receptors such as bathing waters and drinking
water supplies. ‘Risk-based’ means putting resources where the risks are greatest to human
health and the environment, so areas that posed the most risk were inspected ahead of areas
that were viewed as low risk. The methodology used to carry out the risk assessment was the
source-pathway-receptor (S-P-R) model, currently used for groundwater protection schemes in
Ireland. The S-P-Rmodel is based on the concept that for a risk to exist there must be a source
of potential pollution (e.g. a discharge from a DWWTS), a receptor that may be impacted by
that pollution (e.g. humans or the environment), and a pathway by which the pollution can get
from the source to the receptor (e.g. through bedrock or soils). The scale of the risk assessment
areas range from low to very high. The results of this risk assessment carried out by the EPA
can be seen in the map below which also shows the areas of special interest combined with the
DWWTS risk ranking map for the Republic of Ireland. The brown and dark brown colours on
the map signify areas which are at high or very high risk from DWWTS with the areas coloured
in green considered to be low risk.
Map 1. National risk ranking and areas of special interest, 2015 Map 1.
Source: (EPA, 2015)
A grant scheme was introduced by the Minister of Environment, Community and Local
Government in order to aid homeowners who have failed the DWWTS inspection. As stated in
the Water Services (Amendment) Act 2012, “grants are available for the carrying out of
remediation, repair or upgrading works to, or replacement of, a domestic waste water
treatment system, where such remediation, repair, upgrading or replacement arises directly
from an inspection and subsequent issue of an advisory notice under.” The DWWTS requiring
remediation must have been registered by the owner of the premises connected to it by the
prescribed date of 1st February 2013 in order to be eligible for the grant. There are also income
limits regarding availability of the grant, as shown below in table 1.
Table 1: Grants available for DWWTS governed by levels of household income
Household Income % of approved costs available Maximum Grant available
Up to €50,000 80% €4,000
€50,001 - €75,000 50% €2,500
In excess of €75,000 No grant is available No grant is available
Out of 987 inspections carried out 476 systems failed the inspection and received an
advisory notice. Additionally, 79% of inspected systems greater 50 years old, failed the
inspection. That means that almost 50% of the systems inspected failed and the most common
reason for failure was lack of de-sludging maintenance or age of the system. In addition, a
further 52% of sites with private wells failed the inspection (EPA 2015).An interim review of
the national inspection plan by the EPA (2014) found the “not properly operating, maintaining,
or desludging a system were the most common problems found and reasons for failure of the
inspection”. A further updated review by the EPA (2015) found that “the first year of
implementation highlighted a number of issues such as a lack of awareness of operation and
maintenance requirements by homeowners, which was evident during inspections as the most
common reasons for failure related to de-sludging and/or operation and maintenance issues”.
1.3 Research objective
Given the severity of Ireland’s issues with water quality and the significantly high level
of failure rates for domestic waste water treatment systems, due primarily to improper
maintenance, this research will aim to highlight the potential barriers that may be responsible
for this. Thus, the research objective of this study is to investigate the effects of environmental
risk perception, behaviours towards enforcement of policy, and attitudes regarding how risk
has been communicated in terms the of proper maintenance of domestic waste water treatment
systems and could these areas be considered as barriers in terms of the maintenance of
Source: Regulations 2013 (S.I. No. 222 of 2013)
1.4 Research questions
With all of the above factors taken into consideration this study will address the following
How does risk perception of the environmental hazards have the potential to effect the
public’s view of importance of DWWTS maintenance?
How was the environmental risk and importance of DWWTS maintenance
What are the attitudes of the public regarding the responsible regulatory authorities
responsible for the development and in particular the enforcement of the policy
1.5 Structure of thesis
This thesis will follow the following framework, in section 2.0 a review of the most
relevant literature relating to the research topic shall be discussed and highlighted. Following
this section 3.0 shall establish the methodology behind the study, how the study was carried
out, the methods used and the justification for the case study area. This section will be followed
by section 4.0 which will contain the results of the study. Finally section 5.0 will contain a
discussion of these results and the relevant conclusions which can be made, also this section
shall attempt to highlight the contribution which this study has made to literature in the area
and possible policy implications which this study has highlighted.
2.0 Risk perception and environmental awareness
This section investigates the literature surrounding environmental risk perception,
attitudes towards risk communication and the awareness and behaviours towards policy
enforcement of the public. Risk perception is an often over looked element of why DWWTS
are poorly maintained and also why there is a significant knowledge gaps relating to dangers
and risk to water quality that DWWTS may pose. Throughout the course of this section, this
thesis shall investigate how a better understating of risk perception, attitudes and awareness, in
terms of DWWTS, and of the factors that affect each of these, can play an important role in
protecting, improving and safe guarding water quality, the environment and human health.
2.1 Risk perception as a concept
Risk perception is an often over looked element of why DWWTS are poorly maintained
and also why there is a significant knowledge gaps relating to dangers and risk to water quality
that DWWTS may pose. Risk refers to “situations in which a decision is made whose
consequences depend on the outcomes of future events having known probabilities” according
to Lopes (1987). Risk perception is “the judgements people make when they are asked to
characterise and evaluate hazardous activities and technologies” according to Solvic (2002).
Together with the attitudes and perceptions of individuals towards the risks posed by DWWTS,
a key factor which must be considered to aid effective regulation is the capacity of the regulate
to comply (Black and Baldwin, 2012 ).
Risk is the product of a hazard and the probability of its occurrence. Risk perception is
the way an individual evaluates hazard, most commonly through intuitive risk judgements
(Slovic 2000). In another context, risk is interpreted more narrowly to mean the probability or
chance of suffering an adverse consequence, or of encountering some loss. Understanding risk
is extremely important, particularly with regards to the domestic waste water treatment
regulatory system in Ireland, not only, because it is a risk based regulatory system, but
improved understanding risk perception will allow for a better understanding as to why the
level of DWWTS maintenance in Ireland is so poor.
The understanding and communication of risk is also another crucial factor in risk
perception. As Covello and Sandman (2001) point out, risk communication can be extremely
useful, “where data indicate that a hazard is not serious, yet the public is near panic, it can be
used to calm people down; for this kind of situation, its goal is to provide reassurance. But it
can also help generate a sense of urgency where data indicate that the hazard is serious, yet
the public response is one of apathy”. Thus, a study into the behaviours and attitudes which
can have an influence on the home owner’s risk perception of the hazards of poor DWWTS
maintenance and operation could prove extremely useful in terms of future risk communication
and behavioural change or information campaigns regarding environmental hazards. The
information gained from this study could be used to give an insight into why a small sector of
the population, behaves with regard to DWWTS and potentially highlight reasons which might
influence this behaviour. This information can then be utilised by the relevant authorities such,
as the EPA, in order to improve future risk communication campaigns.
2.2 Understanding attitudes to risk and the consequences for environmental risk
communication and management
The importance of understanding attitudes in terms of risk perception is vital,
particularly in terms of the effects attitudes may have on the risk perception of the negative
impacts of poorly maintained DWWTS. There are numerous factors which can have an
influence on these attitudes and behaviours, including trust, feeling of control and the trade-off
between benefits and risk. Studies have shown that perception can be related to gender,
education, socio-economic status, and cultural background, past experience and media
exposure (Slovic, 2000; Lai and Tao, 2003). Some of these factors shall now be examined in
more detail and in an environmental context.
There is a significant difference between how an expert might perceive a risk and how
a member of the public might perceive a risk. Elliot (2003) found that professionals view risk
in terms of absolute values whereas the non-expert took a more varied and extreme view on
risk. Experts in general will deal with the empirical/factual proof that a risk is apparent, whereas
the opposite might be true for the public, where they may not perceive the risk in a similar
fashion to the expert. Elliot (2003) states that “in environmental decision making, local
community residents and activists frequently make claims about risk and its management that
run counter to expert knowledge. Environmental practitioners who dismiss these claims as
irrational or emotional become ill-equipped tocope withthem.” This fact may well be a further
difference between expert and the public in terms of DWWTS, especially in terms of inspection
failure and the grant scheme which shall be discussed later.
The way in which a member of the general public may perceive a risk that is unlikely
to affect them and give that risk more value, or preference, over a risk that is more ambiguous
in nature and has the potential to affect them is often referred to as the “dread factor”. This is
where the non-expert was found to focus on the extreme outcomes of the risk whereas the
professional tended to focus on the expected effect of the risk. In the case of DWWTS, the non-
expert or rural population may not view the risk of poor maintenance of a DWWTS as
significant as possibly the risk of being in a car crash. Solvic (1987) states that the higher a
non-expert has a “dread” of the risk the more they will perceive that risk. So potentially this
could be the case regarding the rural population overall perception of the risk for poor
maintenance of DWWTS and the hazards associated with that. In Whitfield et al’s (2009),
study to gauge the population’s perceptions regarding risk related to nuclear power, the authors
found that perceived nuclear risk is a direct function of trust and respondent education. Barron
et al (2000) found that worry, regarding risk, was largely affected by probability judgments,
which were lower for experts than for non-experts.
Similarly, as Slimak and Dietz (2006) have stated, “the lay public is more concerned
with low-probability high-consequence risk items such as hazardous waste sites, sewage, and
radiation. The risk professionals, however, are more concerned with those risks that have
global consequences, including population growth, loss of wildlife habitat, global warming,
and ozone depletion”. Also Solvic (1987) found that the non-experts perception of the risk
posed from radiation from nuclear power plants is often unorthodox and draws on irrational
fears, which often focus on the potential for catastrophic events such as a nuclear meltdown,
which experts in this field know, to be a highly unlikely outcome and a risk that should not be
perceived in such a way. The public’s view of the risks involved in nuclear energy are
completely different to the actual dangers as understood by scientists. Conversely the OECD
(2012) state that, “people systematically avoid making decisions in situations where the
consequences of their actions do not have known probabilities.” This means individuals may
be overly cautious in preventing or insuring against risks with ambiguous probabilities
Personal or direct experience of the risk often have the potential to influence a non-
experts view whereas a professional’s estimate of risk seeks to assess the likelihood and
severity of harm associated with particular sources of risk. Peacock et al (2005) found that “one
would expect that when personally experienced, a natural hazard event would be more
meaningful and lead to heightened perception of risk.” Peacock et al (2005) also noticed a
difference in an individual’s risk perception if a hazardous experience is shared on a
community level. The study found that it is not as poignant as if an individual experienced it
on a personal level, as Peacock et al, (2005) found that there was a difference between a natural
hazard event experienced on a community level and a natural hazard event experienced on a
personal level. The difference being that the personally experienced natural hazard event may
have more of an effect on heightening individual perception than that of a community
experience of a similar event. It is considered that this would have particular relevance in the
case of group water and waste water disposal schemes, however it could also be applied to a
rural community made up of “one off houses” relying on DWWTS and private wells. People
may also perceive risk indirectly as Peacock et al (2005) point out, “research on students found
that those whose families had experience damage events such as earthquakes were more likely
to have higher risk perceptions.” In relation to DWWTS, it is potentially the case that, if a
person knows a family member or friend has experienced the consequences of DWWTS
malfunction or inspection failure then the person may be more likely to perceive the risk than
not having this indirect experience.
Values and beliefs may also influence risk perception, as shown by both Dietz & Stern,
(1995) and Kahneman, (2003). These studies used a method of surveying the public in order to
see if values and general beliefs may have any effect on risk perception and found that, values
and beliefs do have an effect. In both these cases, survey respondents are presented questions
on subjects with which they have little familiarity. We would expect that they usually respond
quickly by drawing on their values and general beliefs which will have substantial influence
on their risk perceptions. Generally the studies found that values and general beliefs constitute
“heuristics and biases” that can influence stated risk perceptions. Whitfield et al (2009) found
in relation to beliefs and values that, “altruism a concern with the welfare of other humans and
other species has been a strong and consistent predictor of various measures of environmental
concern and in one application has been shown to influence perceptions of ecological risk.
High levels of altruism lead to an increase in perceived risk via people’s generalized beliefs
about the environment”. Whitfield et al (2009) also found that values do predict attitudes:
individuals with traditional values have greater support for, while those with altruistic values
have greater opposition to, nuclear power. This may be difficult to examine in this study but
may influence the responses received during the interview process. This is because, depending
on the knowledge or education level of the rural population being interviewed, general believes
and values may have an influence on the responses given by the interviewees.
The mental noise model, is a further point highlighted by Covello et al (2001), which
has the potential to cause further impacts on risk perception and also have implications for risk
communication. The mental noise model centres on the way in which people process
information under stress and how these changes in the way information is processed can affect
communication. As Covello et al (2001) point out, “when people are in a state of high concern
because they perceive a significant threat, their ability to process information effectively and
efficiently is severely impaired. When people feel that what they value is being threatened, they
experience a wide range of emotions, ranging from anxiety to anger. The emotional arousal
and/or mental agitation generated by these strong feelings create mental noise.” This mental
noise can have the potential to seriously effect a person’s perceptions of risk and ability to
make rational decisions. This mental noise is often increased when a person views a situation
as being unfair or involuntary. Similarly, Bound et al (2006) highlights in general, people feel
a greater danger when the risk is imposed (chemical residues in food) rather than voluntary
(smoking), reflecting the lack of control they may feel in the situation. If a clear benefit can be
derived, people are more likely to accept a risk in their environment. Their tolerance is also
affected by the nature of the consequences. Catastrophic (acute) outcomes are viewed more
seriously than chronic effects. The simple fact that another situation which a member of the
public may be dealing with at the time and perceive as a more pressing matter (i.e. financial
worries), may have a serious impact on the perception of an ambient risk such as poor DWWTS
maintenance and thus impact on responses during the interview process.
Trust plays a hugely significant part in how effective risk communication is and thus
the level the risk is perceived at. Organizations that accept the obligation to prove their
contentions to the satisfaction of their critics find a wide range of mechanisms to help them do
so, such as third party audits. Ironically, it is because they rely more on accountability and less
on trust that such organizations come to be viewed as trustworthy. As Whitfield et al (2009)
point out “recent empirical evidence shows that the greater the congruency in values between
individuals and institutions charged with managing risks, the greater the trust in those
institutions.” Whitfield et al’s (2009) study focussed on the nuclear power industry and risk
perception and the study found in relation to environmental organisations the trust the public
has in them that, “even if environmental institutions are trusted, they have limited power to
prevent nuclear risks from manifesting.” This is a significant point as potentially the same can
be said for DWWTS, the EPA and local authorities in this study. The authorities have limited
power to the prevent water contamination from DWWTS. In terms of the communication of
risk, it is considered by Turner et al (2006) that “health-related information seeking can lead
to a deeper understanding of disease symptoms, prevention tactics, or effective cures, people
are not always motivated to seek such information on their own and research indicates that
people often avoid information seeking when the topic is distressing.” This is important in
terms of DWWTS as, the general public may not be motivated to seek out information
regarding the risks of poor DWWTS maintenance if the information has the potential to cause
distress. This then poses the question does the EPA and local authority have the trust of the
public, as they are responsible overseeing the DWWTS registration and inspection system
respectively. Furthermore the question of whether communications with the public on the risks
involved in improper maintenance having any effect if the organisation may not be viewed as
trustworthy is an interesting one. Following on from this the following section this study
investigates whether economic incentives have any effect.
2.3 Economic incentives, the implications and influences on risk perception
Another factor which may have a significant influence on how people maintain their
DWWTS is economic incentives, which this section shall investigate in more detail. The
section aims to investigate the potential effects of fines and penalties, the communication of
risk and trust building. In terms of economic incentives, Cardenas et al (2000) point out that
economic institutions (incentives) are designed to alter behaviour, to stimulate actions intended
to produce outcomes that are socially superior to those expected to flow from self-regarding
individual choices. Purcell and Magette (2010) and Barr, (2003) found that, in relation to
enabling the public to get involved in the waste segregation process, economic incentives and
social pressure all had a significant influence on how people behaved in relation to waste
management. De Oliveria Simonetto and Borenstein, (2007) found that, when solid municipal
waste management was highlighted as being an issue for the health of the environment, to
homeowners, they held the issue in high regard, mainly, due to a series of successful media
campaigns such as the “race against waste” campaign. This shows potentially in the case of
DWWTS an effective media campaign may be crucial in influencing the behaviour of the rural
As highlighted by Kollmuss and Agyeman (2002), economic factors are clearly very
important when designing new policies and strategies that are meant to influence and change
people’s behaviour. People can be influenced by economic incentives to behave pro-
environmentally. This can be seen for example in the Massachusetts Bottle Bill, which was
introduced in order to provide an economic incentive for consumers to return used beverage
containers and encourage conservation of materials and energy through recycling and reuse.
Each consumer receives 5 cents per bottle returned to recycling centres and the bill is
responsible for the very high recycling rate of bottles at over 80% compared to an overall
recycling rate of less than 10% in Boston, Massachusetts. The opposite is also true, until
recently, very low prices for heating oil in the US prevented people from taking energy
conservation measures. However it is also the case that, economic factors are intertwined with
social, infrastructural, and psychological factors. This is apparent in the different effects of pay-
per-bag policies, the pay per bag policy is a system in which garbage will only be collected if
it is placed in pre-purchased bags. The theory is that if people have to purchase bags, they will
cut down on their wastes, and recycle more. In some communities, the bag fees did nothing to
reduce the weight of disposed material and increased the recycling rates only slightly
(Ackerman, 1997). In others, a similar bag fee led to a chain reaction: people started
unwrapping their groceries in the supermarket which in turn led the supermarkets to redesign
and reduce their packaging to a minimum level. In these communities, the per capita reduction
of garbage was quite significant. This is interesting in terms of DWWTS as it shows that
economic incentives alone are not always a successful method of changing people’s behaviour.
The OECD (2011) points out that environmental taxes have many important
advantages, such as environmental effectiveness, economic efficiency, the ability to raise
public revenue, and transparency. Environmental taxes have also been successfully used to
address a wide range of issues including waste disposal, water pollution and air emissions. In
many problems of cooperation, people are willing to sacrifice personal wealth to punish non
co-operators for the greater good of the collective. Further to this the OECD (2011) points this
out as being important because the credible threat of punishment can provide a bottom-up
incentive for individuals to behave more cooperatively than what traditional theory would
predict. Conversely it is also considered that monetary incentives have the potential to ‘crowd
out’ some people’s willingness to protect the environment ‘voluntarily’, with possible
implications for policy choice and stringency. The following section shall investigate
2.4 Environmental risk enforcement
Environmental risk enforcement is extremely important in terms of any regulatory
policy aimed at improving the environment as without enforcement there may not be an
incentive to comply with a regulation such as the DWWTS inspection system. Shimshack and
Ward (2008) describe environmental enforcement as a tool to secure compliance with
regulations. Friesen (2003) states the, “standard theory predicts that a firm will comply with a
regulation when its compliance cost is less than the expectedpenalty associated with violation.
Frequent monitoring and relatively high fines will be necessary to deter firms from violating
regulations. Observation, however, suggests otherwise. Compliance is generally considered to
be high, despite low inspection probabilities and small fines being imposed, if at all”. This may
well mirror the situation in Ireland with regards to DWWTS in that registration was low cost
but the maintenance costs are quiet high in comparison. For example it usually costs around
€250-€300 in order to empty a DWWTS and there is large expense if a replacement system is
required after an inspection was carried out compared to an initial registration fee of just €5.
Further to this there is a low number of DWWTS inspections in most counties which would
result in poor maintenance of DWWTS. Shimshack and Ward (2005), in their study of factories
polluting water ways in the U.S.A state, “a fine produces a surprisingly large decrease in
violation rates, on the order of about a two-thirds reduction. The majority of this impact can
be attributedto reputation enhancement by theregulator; other plants reduce violations almost
as dramatically as the fined plant”. When this is compared with the DWWTS regulatory system
if a nearby system is inspected and fails does this raise awareness in the local community?
Foulon et al (2002) argue that; in view of the difficulties associated with the monitoring
and enforcement of environmental standards and regulations, an increasing number of
environmental regulators around the world have looked to complement or supplement
traditional enforcement actions (fines and penalties) with the adoption of structured
information programs by which the environmental performance of polluters is revealed. This
is much the same as the mode of public engagement used by the EPA in the DWWTS
regulatory system. Another issue pointed out by Heyes (2000) contends that, “the EPA
inspections may be inaccurate such that evenif a firm is failing to comply with some regulatory
requirement when inspected, the inspection may still fail to detect that noncompliance. Clearly
the enforcement agency can reduce that likelihood at a cost by increasing the thoroughness of
its inspections, and part of characterising an optimal enforcement programme would be to
specify the ‘right’ degree of thoroughness”. In terms of the DWWTS regulatory system, the
inspections are carried out by the local authority and this point of thoroughness of inspection
may not be applicable to failing DWWTS as there are obvious signs including pooling at the
surface, odour and excess vegetation growth.
The DWWTS inspection system in itself can be seen as inadequate by the sheer number
of systems which need to be inspected and the small number of inspectors per county. For
example County Wexford has only two inspectors responsible for inspecting 21242 DWWTS
in the county. It is clear that with only certain amount of scheduled inspections each year, 54
inspections between 2013 and 2014 as highlighted by EPA (2013), it would take a very long
time to inspect every system in the county. So in terms of enforcement of the DWWTS
inspection system, this raises the question does the rural population view the inspection system
as adequate or fair?
The three main areas of interest, in terms of this study, arising from the literature are risk
perception, risk communication and enforcement of environmental risk. The literature
surrounding these three key areas is very wide ranging as we have seen. It is clear that each of
these issues have many influencing factors which need to be taken in to consideration when
conducting a study surrounding people’s behaviours towards proper maintenance of DWWTS.
As was evident from this section the non-experts perception of risk may vary and be influences
by a number of factors such as personal experience of a failure of DWWTS and its implication.
The dread factor was also highlighted in terms of risk perception, where by non-experts tend
to be more concerned about unlikely risks or a risk that can be easily seen or noticed compared
to an unseen risk such as the negative impacts on the environment and human health which
improper DWWTS maintenance could cause.
In regards to the communication of risk, both mental noise and trust in the organisation
delivering the message play a key role. Mental noise as discussed has the potential to alter how
a person would view the importance or impact a risk might have, such that if a risk is ambient
or unseen often like the effects of improper DWWTS maintenance then other more obvious
risk would take precedence. Trust, mainly trust in the organisation communicating risk, was
shown as a key influencing factor with regard to risk communication, throughout the risk
Economic incentives were shown to have an impact on risk changing people’s
environmental behaviour but it was noticeable that incentives were not successful in every case
which raised and interesting point regarding DWWTS registration system and environmental
enforcement. As was evident in the literature surrounding environmental enforcement
regulatory inspection systems, fines and penalties are only successful in there is a high number
of inspections, which is not the case with the DWWTS inspection system and may represent a
flaw in its implementation. In the next section this research paper shall outline the methods
used in order to obtain the results of this study.
This study is aims to produce social explanations, regarding the potential drawbacks that
risk perception, attitudes towards risk communication and the behaviours regarding
enforcement of policy can potentially have a serious impact on how DWWTS are maintained
and why this level of maintenance is so poor in rural Ireland. This section of the paper will deal
with methods used in this study. A qualitative method was chosen for a number of reasons,
chiefly to gain an insight in to the general public’s own feelings and thoughts towards DWWTS
and enable the study to gauge their risk perception, attitudes and behavioural tendencies. The
following sections shall discuss in detail the approach to the methodology. Section 3.1 is
concerned with the research design and why using a qualitative approach and semi-structured
interviews are the most appropriate methodological approach. Section 3.2 outlines the rationale
for the case study selection and sampling approach used. Section 3.3 gives an outline the
interview schedule. This is then followed by section 3.4 which is dedicated to explaining how
the data is to be analysed and finally section 3.5 will provide a short conclusion to this section.
3.1 Research design
This study uses a qualitative approach as it is considered that this approach would be
best suited to allow the type of information required from interviewees to be easily gathered.
The data for analyses will be obtained from 15 semi-structured interviews which will be
discussed in further detail below. Qualitative research design tends to focus on the words used
to describe certain situations and scenarios, when a question is posed to the interviewee, rather
than any quantitative empirical analysis. Given the short timeframe for this research study a
quantitative approach involving surveys was seen not to be viable. The qualitative method
enables the researcher to explore, in the case of this study, the non-experts feelings and attitudes
towards proper DWWTS maintenance and their perceptions of the risks involved and also the
registration and inspection system of DWWTS.
Some of the main advantages of this qualitative method as highlighted by King (1994);
“it is one of the most flexible methods available; it can address quite focused questions about
aspects of organisational life; it can be used to examine much broader issues; it suits ideally
to examining topics in which different levels of meaning need to be explored and it is a method
which most research participants accept readily (partly due to the familiarity with the
interviews in general).” The qualitative approach allows further investigation of theories, in
this case the theory that the risk perception of environmental hazards, attitudes towards risk
communication and behaviours regarding enforcement of policy, of the rural population of the
case study area, has the potential to seriously impact on the levels of maintenance and operation
There are also certain limitations of this research design. Firstly, external reliability or.
the degree to which the study can be replicated, is often difficult to meet, as similar conditions
under which the study was undertaken can be difficult to recreate. However, as this study is
exploratory in nature and is a representation of a small population in rural Ireland, it is
considered that the methods used in this study can certainly be replicated for studies of a similar
nature. Qualitative research is also often highlighted as being too subjective relying on what
the researcher views as important. The researcher must remember to remain as objective as
possible and not allow their own personal feelings or values influence to research process in
any way. This is achieved through ensuring that the values and beliefs of the researcher are
ignored to allow this objectivity. The questions asked in the interview process are formed to
allow them to be as neutral as possible and devoid of bias.
The degree in which the case study used in this study can be used to give a general
picture of social behaviour and risk perceptions in rural Ireland should be taken with caution.
However the area in question, Monaseed, can certainly provide the insight into the rural
population that this study seeks to investigate. However, it must be remembered that this area
is not representative of the entire rural population of the country. Again the fact that this study
is more exploratory than representative may be viewed as a limitation, however given the time
constraints of this study, a more longitudinal approach over a wider area, using the same
methods may provide a more precise view of the rural population.
“The qualitative research interview attemptstounderstand theworld from the subjects’
points of view, to unfold the meaning of their experiences, to uncover their lived world prior to
scientific explanations” (Kvale and Brinkmann, 2009, pg.1). The use of semi-structured
interviews in this study allows the interviewer to have some control over the conversation
without influencing or limiting the responses of the interviewee too much. These interviews
tend to be flexible responding to where the interviewees want to take it. However, the
interviewer can intervene with certain follow up questions to refocus the interview. This
flexibility can also be seen as one of the advantages of qualitative research in that it can enhance
the research as it can highlight unanticipated issues. The reasons for using this design rather
than a quantitative survey method are clear. The survey method limits the responses received
from the study area and as an individual’s risk perception, and attitudes towards risk
communication and behaviours regarding policy enforcement are very personal a survey
method was seen as an inadequate method for gathering this qualitative data. Another fact is
given the time constraint of this study it was considered that more in-depth data could be
gathered using this method. The following section shall investigate the case study area and the
method of sampling used in this study.
3.2 Case study and sampling
In this section the outline of the case study and sampling method will be discussed. This
study is taking the case study approach to research as it allows research to be conducted on the
risk perceptions, behaviours towards policy enforcement and attitudes regarding risk
communication of a single community. This design allows a small sample of the rural
population in Ireland to be interviewed and allows the study to become narrowed down to one
area enabling results to be gathered and formulated much faster and easier. The case study area
in this study was chosen for the following reasons.
In the EPA national DWWTS inspection plan (2013), County Wexford was highlighted
as both an area of high risk from DWWTS pollution and was identified as an area of special
interest, as it contains a greater number of receptors which are more sensitive to the pollutants
present in DWWTS discharges. The methodology used to carry out the risk assessment was
the source-pathway-receptor (S-P-R) model, currently used for groundwater protection
schemes in Ireland. The S-P-Rmodel is based on the concept that for a risk to exist there must
be a source of potential pollution (e.g. a discharge from a DWWTS), a receptor that may be
impacted by that pollution (e.g. humans or the environment), and a pathway by which the
pollution can get from the source to the receptor (e.g. through bedrock or soils).
The following map, Map 2, shows the results of the risk assessment, for DWWTS
pollution, in Wexford which was carried out by the EPA in 2013. The brown and dark brown
colours signify areas which are at high risk. It is clear from the map below that Wexford is a
good area to choose a case study. Further to this the case study area of Monaseed, as highlighted
on the map below, was chosen because it is considered an area of high risk and an area of
special interest. Given that this area is a considered to be a high risk area, it is considered that
an investigation in the factors previously highlighted which may affect DWWTS maintenance
in this area would be highly useful.
Map 2. DWWTS Risk Ranking Map of Monaseed, Co. Wexford
Source: (EPA, 2013)
In the first year, running from July 2013 to July 2014, the EPA national DWWTS
inspection plan, outlined Wexford was to undergo a minimum of 53 inspections which was the
sixth highest number of inspection covered areas in the twenty six counties. The case study
area in which the research is conducted is the electoral division of Monaseed which is a mainly
a rural area located in north County Wexford. Monaseed has a population of 636 people and
the main industry is agriculture. The electoral division contains 208 households in total, 20 of
which are on a private water scheme (CSO 2012). These households are removed from this
study which focuses solely on DWWTS. This may be considered as a limitation as the entire
electoral division does not use DWWTS however for the most part, the households in this area
rely on DWWTS for waste water treatment, making it a good example of a community in rural
Ireland to carry out the study on, this is evident when examining Table 2 below. It is clear that
Monaseed with 98% of households in the electoral division classed as “one off” and 85% of
households using DWWTS is a prime case study area for this research. The CSO figures
highlighted below give a clear indication that the case study area of Monnaseed are ideal
Monnaseed, Gorey, County wexford
locations to conduct a study of this nature. Monaseed is clearly a typical rural area in Ireland
with a high level of dispersed settlements, with the majority relying on DWWTS for their waste
water treatment. The results obtained in this area, whilst not representative of the entire
population of Ireland, should give a valuable insight in to behaviours towards DWWTS
maintenance, the risk perception of threat posed by failing or malfunctioning DWWTS and
attitudes towards the communication of risk and the DWWTS inspection and registration
Table 2. One-Off’ Houses and Septic Tank Users in Monaseed relative to the Regional and
National Levels 2011 (number and percentage).
Area Septic Tanks (n) % Total “One off” houses (n) % Total
Monaseed 177 85% 205 98%
Wexford 21,242 40% 23,312 75%
Leinster 138,801 15% 139,873 68%
Republic of Ireland 437,652 28% 433,564 72%
Source: CSO (2011)
This section shall deal with the method of sampling used in this study. Convenience
sampling was the chosen sampling technique in this study. Convenience sampling is a non-
probability sampling technique where participants in a study are selected because of their
convenient accessibility and proximity to the researcher. Participants were selected using this
method owing to the time constraints of the study and the simplicity of this sampling technique.
Participants are selected at random and as quickly as possible, with the only constraint in the
sampling being that the participants dwelling must rely on a DWWTS for its waste water
disposal. It also must be kept in mind that the use of this sampling method, along with the case
study method, means that the results gained through the process of this study will not be
representative of the rural entire population of Ireland. However, as this is more of an
exploratory study, it could be used as a starting point for further more extensive studies. It
would be ideal to test the entire population, but in this case, the population is just too large and
it is impossible to include every individual. Furthermore, given the time constraints of this
study this method of sampling is viewed as a fast and relatively easy form of sampling. It is
planned that the sample will be taken from local the Gaelic Athletic Association, the Irish
Country Women’s Association, the Irish Framers Association and community tidy towns
committee. These organisations will be contacted and ask if members in the case study area,
would like to take part in the interview process. Additionally, door-to-door cold knocking was
used to select interviewees in the area, this required a reliance on homeowners being at home.
The interviews took place during two week period, starting on the 27th of July 2015 and
finishing on the 9th of August. The interviews were carried out during the evenings and
weekends to ensure that people’s working day was not affected.
Interviews were conducted on an individual and confidential basis, the household were
contacted initially through one of the community groups or as specified above, using the cold
knocking method. This allowed the researcher to arrange a suitable time to conduct the
interview, and this initial conversation also included a short explanation of the study in order
to allay any suspicions or misconceptions held by the homeowner. The theme of the
questionnaire will focus on three key areas risk perception of environmental hazards,
behaviours towards enforcement of regulatory policy regarding DWWTS and attitudes towards
the communication of risk by a regulatory authority. A copy of the questionnaire schedule used
in the interview process can be found in the appendix. The following section shall provide the
framework of the interview schedule.
3.3 Interview schedule
This section shall deal with how the interview process was carried out. The interview
took place in the interviewee’s home to aid their comfort and make them feel more at ease. The
interview focussed on three key areas as outlined above, risk perception of environmental
hazards, behaviours towards enforcement of regulatory policy regarding DWWTS and
attitudes towards the communication of risk by a regulatory authority. The interview shall be
digitally recorded in order to enable transcription after the interview has taken place.
Interviewees were assured that any information used in the study was completely confidential.
The interviewer used a list of questions as a guide, in order to steer the conversation. Interviews
lasted between 20-30minutes. Each of the conversations began with some general conversation
in order to put the interviewee at ease, following this the interview commenced. If the
interviewee went off the subject the interviewer used a series of questions or phrases in order
to steer the conversation back to what the research is focussed on. After the interview, the
participant was thanked for their cooperation with the study. Following the interview and
transcription process the data was analysed, the following section deals with the data analysis
of this research in more detail.
3.4 Data analysis
This section of the research paper shall focus primarily on how the data was, coded,
analysed and the data was then conceptualised. The qualitative nature of the data being
collected in this study means that the data analysis will be based around the concept of
grounded theory. Grounded Theory is a research tool which enables the researcher to seek out
and conceptualise the latent social patterns and structures, through the process of constant
comparison. An example of this method in use, can be seen in Larsson et al (2006), where the
researchers uses a similar method of coding and conceptualising to this study, in order to
investigate the perceptions of rural Community Leaders' regarding environmental health risks.
The success of this method relies on the fact that data collection and analysis occur
simultaneously, they are inextricably linked. There are three stages in grounded theory analysis,
firstly conceptual categories in the data must be found. Secondly relationships between these
categories are located and finally these relationships are accounted for by finding a core
category (i.e. is there one key category that can explain the others?). These three stages are in
effect achieved through coding the data in three successive ways, open coding to find
categories, axial coding to interconnect them, and finally, selective coding to establish the core
category or categories.
Interview transcripts are coded to give them order so they can be easily compared. Data
is broken into component parts and then given a code, not a numerical code, more a label to
differentiate discrete parts of the interview transcript. For example, an answer given regarding
risk communication could be coded as a positive view (the individual did receive information
and the form of communication used was found to be useful) or a negative view (the
information was not received or was ignored) an example of how the coding was carried out
can be seen in appendix C .Following the coding of all the data, it was categorized and grouped
in order to develop concepts which allow the results of the study to be linked to and supply
answers to research questions. The concepts that emerge should lead to the grounded theory
that the rural population’s levels of risk perception, their behaviours regarding enforcement of
regulatory policy of DWWTS and their attitudes towards risk communication can combine to
have a negative impact on the level at which DWWTS in rural Ireland are maintained, and thus
pose a risk to the environment and human health.
It is clear from the above section that the methods used to obtain the results of this study
are relatively easy to replicate for future studies regarding rural Ireland and DWWTS
maintenance. The case study area of Monnaseed is more than adequate, with a high rate of “one
off” houses serviced by DWWTS. The semi structured nature of the interviews allowed for the
collection of information regarding how the respondents really felt about the topics being
discussed. It must be noted that the method of convenience sampling allowed the interviews to
be carried out with great ease and enable a greater response rate. The chosen method of data
analysis, grounded theory allowed for the interview process to be constantly improved and
enabled greater data collection from the subsequent interviews. Responses were coded and
conceptualised with ease due to the lay out of the interview. The subsequent section of this
paper shall focus on the results which were obtained through the course of the study.
4.0 Results and Discussion
This section of the study shall outline the result obtained from the exploratory research
carried out on the case study area of Monaseed, Gorey, Co. Wexford. This results section is
broken down into subsections relating to each of the research questions posed. The results shall
be displayed in the following order; risk perception of environmental hazards and its effect on
DWWTS maintenance, the communication of the importance of DWWTS maintenance and
the attitudes towards enforcement of the DWWTS registration and inspection system. The
results were coded and grouped together and are displayed below.
4.1 Risk perception and environmental hazards
This section of the results displays examines the level of risk perception of environmental
hazards of the respondents. This risk perception of environmental hazards have been shown to
have a significant effect on proper DWWTS maintenance in this study. The research produced
some very interesting results, firstly the majority of respondents felt that the environment was
important to rural Ireland. This could be explained as by rural dwellers seeing themselves as
almost self-sufficient or relying on the land for income. As if the rural population who live and
work in the countryside do not look after their environment this could influence their income
and way of life. One respondent noted that,
“The environment is very important to rural Ireland as most people in this area anyway would
make a living off the land and if you didn’t look after your environment it could have knock on
effects for this” interviewee 10.
Furthermore, positive views were observed in relation to how respondents felt with regard to
the importance of the environment to rural Ireland. As shown by this comment made by another
“I would consider the environment to be very important to rural Ireland, I suppose as a farmer
you are kind of seen as a steward of the land and responsible for protecting the rural
environment”, interviewee 6.
The respondents in general seemed to have a high level of awareness of the importance of
the environment to rural Ireland though the responses varied greatly when asked about the
threats. This fact would link to the literature highlighted above surrounding risk perception, as
different factors such as, education, socio-economic status, and cultural background, past
experience and media exposure of the risk can all influence how an individual perceives that
risk. The perception of risks that the respondents felt posed a risk to this rural environment
varied from electricity pylons and wind energy turbines to pollution of water courses from
agricultural activity and improper development and over development of land. It was noted that
responses amongst interviewees in general, were all focused on risks which the respondent
could see as having an obvious effect on the environment or an effect from a risk that the
respondent was concerned about. This is interesting as it shows the “dread factor” effects risk
perception as shown from the following responses.
“I would say the biggest risk to the rural environment would be illegal dumping of waste or
those electricity pylons” interviewee 11.
“A risk to the rural environment, I suppose I would have to say too much development, like too
many houses being built” interviewee 14.
“I would have say windfarms, they are dreadful, a friend of mine lives close to them, the noise
and the look of them, I think they are a risk to the rural environment” interviewee 3.
The risks to the rural environment highlighted above show that respondents fear or dread
risks such as over development, wind farms and electricity pylons which are all risks that are
not necessarily going to have as much of an impact on the environment as the implications of
poor DWWTS maintenance. There certainly seems to be an element of the “not in my
backyard” view amongst the respondents when it comes to wind farms and electricity pylons,
but very few respondents highlighted DWWTS failure as a concern, which clearly has more
potential to harm the environment. One respondent highlighted a reason as to why people
would not necessarily view DWWTS as a risk by stating,
“I think the main reason people do not see septic tanks as a risk to the rural environment as
much as say wind farms, is because septic tanks are out of sight, so they are out of mind”,
So the simple fact that a DWWTS is out of sight of the respondent means that it is viewed
as more of an ambient risk to the environment when compared with say wind farms which are
viewed as more of a serious risk, when the opposite is true, showing a significant difference
between the non-expert and experts view relating to risk perception. Interestingly not one
respondent when asked about the rural environment and the risks that might negatively affect
it mentioned the potential of DWWTS as a primary concern. Four respondents considered
DWWTS as a potential a risk to rural water quality, but only after other risks to the environment
were highlighted by the respondents.
“I suppose you could consider septic tanks as having an effect if they ever leaked in to the
water course, but I wouldn’t think it’s of major concern to people” interviewee 13.
Further to the low level of risk perception surrounding DWWTS, it was interesting to note
that, in general the level of maintenance amongst the interviewees was very poor. It is clear
that risk perception plays a key role in proper maintenance of DWWTS, because if the public
do not view poor DWWTS maintenance as a serious risk then they will not change their
behaviours and practices regarding maintenance. Some interesting information was received
from the interviewees regarding maintenance, showed not only the low level of risk perception
but also the low level of adequate knowledge of DWWTS, as shown in the following responses.
“You don’t need to maintain or empty your septic tank sure it looks after itself” interviewee 6.
“I would go near my septic tank unless there was a problem, but I would certainly fix the
problem then” interviewee 9
“The septic tank I have doesn’t need to be emptied it’s a newer model than the old one”
From the above comments it is clear that most DWWTS maintenance is reactive in nature and
only consider an important issue when a problem arises with the individuals system.
In general respondents also felt they did not possess an adequate level knowledge in
terms of the proper maintenance of their DWWTS, another reason given for poor maintenance
was cost which was seen as a barrier to most respondents. Responses ranged from not
understanding what a visual inspection of a DWWTS entailed to not getting the system de-
sludged on a regular basis. There were quite a few responses which showed that the respondents
this not possess adequate knowledge of how to maintain their DWWTS.
“I was never told how to go about inspecting my tank, I wouldn’t have a clue how to carry out
an inspection, and I suppose if I were to get it emptied one I would really know where to start
to go looking for someone to empty it, I suppose you could look it up on the internet”
Some respondents thought the DWWTS never had to be de-sludged and interestingly the
majority of respondents felt that they would not consider the improper maintenance of their
DWWTS as being a problem until there was a very bad odour or visible signs of a problem,
such as pooling at the surface. Furthermore costs involved in de-sludging or replacing failed
systems were seen as a barrier, as one respondent pointed out,
“In general most people I would think ignore their septic tank, until a problem arises, like
you’re going to shell out whatever it costs to get the tank emptied when you have other bills to
pay for like electricity” interviewee 12 .
Another interesting point made by one of the respondents was that a respondent knew of people
with agitators (a device which helps to mix the nutrient with the bacteria and break up surface
scum) in their DWWTS, a device which required electricity to function, cost the individual
money so they turned off the device.
“I know of friends of mine who live in the area with agitators in their septic tank, but they turn
them off cause they cost too much on the electricity bill to run” interviewee 7.
Further to this point in relation to cost another respondent argued that if their system was not
malfunctioning then they would not view it as financially important,
“look I don’t think people have the money to be adding another bill in to the pot, I mean it’s
kind of like the attitude if it’s not broke why fix it and until there is a problem why should
anyone waste money on their septic tank, when it could be spent on other bills” interviewee 3.
Clearly the cost of maintenance of DWWTS was raised as a major issue with respondents and
it is interesting to note that aside from poor knowledge of DWWTS maintenance practices, cost
is a deciding factor amongst respondents. Further to this another factor which might offer an
explanation to the low level of risk perception is mental noise. As can be seen from the above
comment the respondent says “why should anyone waste money on their septic tank, when it
could be spent on other bills”, the sheer fact that a large proportion of rural dwellers rely on
the agricultural for their income might hint at this mental noise factor. The IFA (2014) have
stated that “overall, it is estimated that National Farm Income fell by almost €40m in 2014 to
€2.2b. When increases in the cost of living are taken into account, National Farm Income in
2014 is estimated to be only 62% of farm income levels in 1994.” This fall in income levels
may lead to households prioritising what bills need to be paid and as there is a low level of
perceived risk surrounding DWWTS, this may well be a contributing factor. This drop in
income may also heighten the effect of mental noise, as if an individual is struggling to afford
to pay bills, they may be in a high state of concern and have the potential to not process
information effectively and efficiently which has implications for both risk perception and also
the communication of risk.
There is quite a contrast in the results as people saw the environment as important but not
viewing poorly maintained DWWTS as an obvious risk to the rural environment namely water
quality. It is evident from the results above that the respondents showed a high level of
environmental risk perception, but an extremely low level of risk perception regarding proper
DWWTS maintenance. It is clear that there are also significant factors which can impact on
this level of risk perception or maintenance of DWWTS, such as cost and lack of adequate
knowledge. The results show that it is not only important to understand the non-experts
perception of risk in order to successfully improve levels of DWWTS maintenance, but also
what factors influence how non-experts might change their behaviour.
4.2 Communication of environmental risk
This section of the results displays how the interviewees viewed the communication of
risk related to the DWWTS or the environment. In general, most of the interviewees found that
they had received some sort of information relating to the environment but not necessarily
relating to DWWTS.
When asked about the registration campaign of DWWTS and the communication of
information regarding this, most respondents acknowledged the fact that the communication of
the registration of DWWTS was very successful. All of the individuals interviewed had
registered their DWWTS and cited the widespread media campaign at the time of registration
for the motivation behind registration. For the most part, the respondents stated that television,
newspapers and radio were the main influencing factors in their decision to register. However
the vast majority never received any information regarding proper maintenance, with only one
respondent stating that,
“The builder told me when I was building the house that I would have to get the tank emptied
every few years” interviewee 7.
It is clear that there seems to be a communication deficit in this area regarding information
relating to proper DWWTS maintenance. This could be attributed to a lack of communication
or poor communication techniques used in the past and in turn be a factor which could explain
the poor level of maintenance of DWWTS. A further factor which could contribute to this
communication problem, as previously alluded to in the previous section, is mental noise. This
effect may well be a reason as to why information regarding maintenance is not being
effectively and efficiently processed by the rural population. The mental noise effect could
cloud the individual’s judgement, as if an individual who for example financial worries,
received communication regarding DWWTS they may well view it as of lesser importance to
other risk or hazards they perceive to be of more importance.
In general the respondents trusted any information they received regarding the
environment from governmental sources with only one respondent viewing this information
sceptically. This respondent lack of trust in the organisations responsible for the registration
and inspection of DWWTS was interesting as it could highlight another reason why the level
of DWWTS maintenance is poor in rural Ireland. In this case the respondent stated;
“I wouldn’t trust anything I got from the county council or the EPA, (information), sure there
only out to make as much money as they can and if they can come up with another way of
getting that money true taxing septic tanks then they will, that EPA crowd are only pencil
pushers” Interviewee 3.
Contrary to this most of the respondents viewed the EPA as a trustworthy source of
information, with one respondent saying,
“Well the EPA and the county council are the experts so if I did receive information off them I
would certainly regard it as trustworthy” interviewee 15.
Most respondents stated that the main reason they found these organisations, the EPA, in
particular trustworthy, was because they felt that they possessed the “scientific knowledge”
and “fact based knowledge” which is used to improve the quality of the environment. This is
significant as this perceived objectivity and impartiality of these scientific institutes are trusted
by the public. This may be for a few reasons, the organisations might be trusted because they
are not seen as political or more likely they are seen as a trustworthy source of information
because the organisation conducts research in the public's interest. All in all it is clear that trust
is a key factor in the communication of risk.
When asked what would improve the communication of information regarding proper
DWWTS maintenance, most respondents felt that if a leaflet drop was done in the area
regarding proper maintenance of DWWTS it would have a positive effect. It was also noted
from some respondents that something that would incentivise them to properly maintain their
DWWTS was, if there was some form of yearly reminder about the importance of DWWTS
maintenance. The overall view was that improved education of the general public surrounding
proper DWWTS maintenance would not only increase the levels of awareness surrounding the
issue but also improve general maintenance practice. One response in particular which captured
both of these suggestion about improving communication of proper DWWTS maintenance
“I think if the county council or whoever is responsible for communicating how important
proper septic tank maintenance did a leaflet drop in this area and maybe some sort of yearly
reminder to inspect of empty your tank then it would have an effect on how most people would
maintain their tanks. I suppose that the yearly reminder could be a letter or leaflet, even an
article in the local newspaper or on the radio, just some sort of warning that if you don’t
maintain your tank, then it could pose a risk to the environment and cost you money in the long
run” interviewee 8.
Further to this interviewee 15 suggested, “an educational talk should be given to school
children in the local schools about proper maintenance of septic tank and the risk of improper
maintenance as the children would then go home and encourage their parents to check their
septic tank, well that’s what I think anyway it would be a way of encouraging improved
It is clear that though the respondents interviewed in general did not receive any
information regarding DWWTS maintenance, many showed a willingness to change their
behaviours towards maintenance, when given the adequate information. Furthermore most
respondents suggested ways of improving communication which along with the comments
highlighted above included talks to local community groups and radio discussions around the
topic of proper maintenance of DWWTS. It is evident that the way in which information is
communicated, and also the trustworthiness of the source of the information being
communicated, could be useful in improving maintenance of DWWTS amongst owner
operators in the future.
4.3 Attitudes related to Enforcement of regulation and policy of DWWTS
This section of the results deals with the attitudes towards enforcement of the policy
surrounding DWWTS. This area of the interview focussed on what the respondent’s attitude
was towards the registration and inspection system, and for what reasons they thought it was
implemented for. As stated above all the respondents registered their system as most thought
it was a good idea to do so, whilst others felt that they had no real choice as they feared no
registration would result in a harsh penalty. Responses which highlighted these facts were as
“I registered mine because it was only a fiver,and if I left if longer it would cost me fifty euros”
“I registered my septic tank because I was afraid that if I didn’t do so and was discovered I
would have been charged a huge fine, because that’s what my neighbour said would happen”
“It seemed as if everyone I knew with a septic tank was going to register theirs so I did the
same” interviewee 9.
The responses here clearly show that a combination of enforcement and monetary incentives
have had a positive effect on motivating individuals to at least register their DWWTS. As seen
in the literature section monetary incentives don not always work however it does appear that
in this case the low cost of the initial registration fee encouraged most respondents to register
their system. This raises the question whether a monetary incentive introduced to encourage
maintenance would be successful. Currently only DWWTS that fail the inspection receive an
income based grant for a replacement system, which encourages DWWTS users not to maintain
their system. Possibly an improved monetary incentive focussed on pro-environmental
behaviour would have an increased impact on the levels of DWWTS maintenance.
In terms of knowledge of the Inspection system and the grants available for septic tank
failure the majority of those interviewed had little or no knowledge of the system with a small
number of respondents possessing a good knowledge of the system. This again points to issues
surrounding the communication of environmental information, there seems to be an obvious
disparity between the respondents knowledge of the registration system, which was widely
advertised and the inspection system, which most respondents were very unclear about.
“Well I have heard of the inspection system, but I never heard of anyone being inspected , I
have no idea how people get chosen to be inspected, or what happens, and I wasn’t aware
there was any grant available” interviewee 11.
This highlights a potential area of improvement for the EPA and County Council in terms of
raising awareness of the inspection system and potentially improving its effectiveness.
The respondents were also asked for what reason did they think the registration and
inspection system was introduced. This section of the interview produced interesting results as
only a small number of respondents viewed the system as being beneficial to the environment.
Mostly respondents tended to highlight the main reasons the system was introduced as adhering
to directives and regulations set out by the Europe Union and avoiding further sanctions from
the European Court of Justice, whilst also as a creating a new source of finance to the
In terms of the EU and the DWWTS regulatory system one respondent stated,
“Europe are just trying to bring everyone under the one European umbrella, making one size
fits all rules, but these rules don’t take the different cultures and behaviours in to account, for
example us Irish have a laid back attitude to this sort of thing” interviewee 15
This comment not only highlights the respondent’s attitude towards the European Union and
the DWWTS inspection system but also highlights and interesting point surrounding the
cultural attitudes toward authority and enforcement in rural Ireland. This has serious
implications for implementing pro-environment behaviour change in rural Ireland as if a
regulatory system such as the DWWTS inspection system is viewed in this “laid back” manner
then it will ultimately be unsuccessful, as rural Ireland will not take the regulation seriously.
As regards making money for the government some respondents stated that,
“It’s just trying to place an extra tax on rural Ireland”, interviewee 10
“It’s because we are not getting caught by Irish water, that they have found another way of
getting money of us” interviewee 3.
This issue of “placing a tax on rural Ireland” as stated by one respondent came across as
common place throughout the interviews as even the minority who recognised the
environmental benefits of the registration and inspection system felt that the government were
introducing it for financial gain. Some respondents felt that as they had a private water source
that this system was a way of making them pay a charge like those living in urban areas who
are taxed under Irish Water. This sceptical image of the DWWTS registration and inspection
system, shared between most respondents highlights a key issue, which potentially, if addressed
by proper communication of both the environmental and human health risks of improper
DWWTS maintenance and benefits of proper maintenance and the DWWTS inspection system
could change this image in the public eye.
Interestingly very few respondents felt the primary reason for the implementation of
the registration and inspection system was in order to protect the environment and most felt
that they would never be inspected as they never heard of anyone in the locality being
inspected. This could highlight a potential flaw in the enforcement of the inspection system as
most respondents in this study seem to think they would never be inspected as shown by the
“Sure mick Wallace was in the Dail the other day saying that wexford has just 2 inspectors
and 21000 septic tanks to inspect, I think he said it would take 200 years to inspect all of the
septic tanks in wexford, I think you would have to be very unlucky to be inspected. That kind of
level of inspection would not encourage you to look after the septic tank in the slightest”
One respondent who had knowledge of the grant system stated,
“The fact that you receive a grant to replace your septic tank if you fail an inspection, but
nothing if you maintain your septic tank if wrong it kind of encourages people not too maintain
their septic tank. I for one got my tank emptied when the registration and inspection system
came in so that because I thought if I was inspected and my system failed it might give me a
better chance of obtaining the grant, as I could prove I only recently emptied the system”
This shows that the non-expert in rural Ireland may be willing to improve the level of
maintenance of their DWWTS if they are incentivised to do so, which is a crucial point as the
respondent above pointed out the fact that you are only rewarded a grant if your DWWTS fails
the inspection, but there is no incentive available to encourage proper maintenance according
to the non-experts interviewed, who do not seem to view the protection of the environment, or
their water quality as benefit of proper DWWTS maintenance.
This low rate of inspection is a clear flaw in the inspection system and if possible needs to be
addressed either through increased recruitment of inspectors or an increase in the frequency of
inspections, or possibly even some form of financial incentive to encourage proper
maintenance. Overall it is clear that these changes have the potential to not only increase
awareness of the inspection system and the importance of DWWTS maintenance but also
improve both environmental and human health in the long run.
It is clear from this study that, the risk perception of the environmental hazards, the
communication of the risk and the attitudes held by the public towards the authorities
responsible for the development and the enforcement of the policy surrounding DWWTS, have
the potential to effect the level of DWWTS maintenance. There have been a number of
important points made in this thesis which if addressed could improve the success of the
DWWTS inspection system and raise levels of DWWTS maintenance throughout rural Ireland.
As shown the risk perception of potential environmental hazards surrounding the level of
maintenance of DWWTS is essential for the success of any risk based regulatory inspection
plan. The risk perception of the hazards posed by malfunctioning DWWTS to both the
environment and to human health has to be change from a risk viewed as an ambient one to a
risk viewed as one which has the potential to effect rural Ireland and its water quality
enormously. The only way of changing this risk perception is by first understanding the risk
and the public’s perception of it, and secondly, by the communication of that risk to the public.
It is clear that the communication of this risk of improper DWWTS maintenance to the public
is from a trustworthy source and delivers a clear message that promotes the enhancement of
the public’s knowledge surrounding DWWTS maintenance. The high level of publication of
the registration system coupled with the financial incentive to register has clearly been highly
effective. If the communication of knowledge regarding inspection system and the importance
of DWWTS maintenance were to be carried out in a similar fashion it could prove invaluable
for the quality of the rural environment and the rural populations health.
And finally, the enforcement of the DWWTS inspection system would benefit from a financial
incentive and also increasing the number of inspectors or the inspection level. The combination
of these actors would encourage pro-environmental behaviour, and raise awareness and also
risk perception of the importance of proper DWWTS maintenance. It is clear that the education
of rural Ireland regarding the DWWTS inspection system, is paramount to its future success
and would lead attitudinal change as regards the DWWTS regulatory system. This study could
be scaled up in order to gain a clearer picture of rural Ireland, but it is evident that combing the
improvements highlighted above would alter the reactive attitude towards maintenance of the
DWWTS in rural Ireland.
Interviewer introduces themselves to the respondent and introduces what the interview shall
Is your house serviced by a septic tank for sewage treatment?
Could you identify the location of your septic tank system?
Are you familiar with your septic tank system’s specifications?
What age would is your system is?
Can you tell me how your system operates?
How many people currently reside in the household?
When was the last time you carried out a visual inspection of your system?
When was the last time your septic tank was emptied and by whom?
What is your main source of drinking water?
How would you rate the quality of the local drinking water and environment?
Has the water source ever been contaminated?
Risk and environmental hazards
To what extent do you consider the environment as important to rural Ireland?
What in your opinion, are the most urgent environmental risks facing rural Ireland today?
Do you consider septic tank maintenance is considered an important issue in rural Ireland?
Are there costs or barriers to septic tank maintenance? And what do you think those are?
Are you familiar with the septic tank inspection system?
Have you registered your septic tank?
Why you think the inspection system was introduced?
Do you think the inspection system is important for the environment?
Do you think there are problems with the inspection system? Is the system fair?
Do you think that the level of public consultation and or engagement about the registration or
inspection system appropriate?
Are you aware of the grant system for failing septic tanks?
Do you think the level of enforcement of the inspection plan is appropriate?
Are there any ways that you think might encourage or incentivise people to maintain their
Have you ever received any information regarding septic tank maintenance, registration or
any other information regarding the environment?
What factors would make you trust information you received?
Do you think that the septic tank registration and inspection system was sufficiently
How useful was this information to you? Did it motivate you regarding DWWTS?
Do you think the DWWTS registration and inspection system was sufficiently publicised? If
so how? Could it have been done differently?
Do you think the approach taken to encourage better septic tank maintenance was successful?
Thank the respondent.
Interviewer: Hello my name is joseph Comerford. I am a student in University College
Dublin. I was wondering if you would mind taking part in an interview as part of the research
I am currently doing. All information you give will be strictly confidential and I’m going to
record our interview if that’s ok with you.
Respondent: Yes of course, that’s no problem.
Interviewer: The weather is not great today is it?
Respondent: No it’s not its awful. How long are you studying up in Dublin?
Interviewer: Well I did 3 years undergrad and 1 year for the masters. So it’s been a good
while. I’ll start the interview now if you’re comfortable to crack on with it.
Respondent: Fire away
Interviewer: Is your house serviced by a septic tank for sewage treatment?
Respondent: Yes it is.
Interviewer: Could you identify the location of your septic tank system?
Respondent: Yes I can. It’s just down there at the bottom of the garden.
Interviewer: Are you familiar with your septic tank system’s specifications?
Respondent: Eh well do you mean the size of it or?
Interviewer: Yes the size of the tank, or what capacity it has.
Respondent: Well I know how it works, but off hand I don’t know the exact capacity or
anything, I do have that kind of information on file somewhere though.
Interviewer: Do you mind me asking you to tell me how your system operates.
Respondent: Well the waste flows into a settling tank and then the runoff is distributed across
Interviewer: That’s great. Can you tell me what age would you say your system is?