Twenty three years ago I bought a small but otherwise very attractive ‘goat herder’s’ cottage (a kind of traditional mountain cottage) located in an isolated hamlet in the northern part of the Ardèche in the Massif Central region of Southern France. The house was perched on an outcrop above the Eyrieux River that flowed in a gorge below.

Photo: View from the house of the gorge and a partial view of the Eyrieux River.

The house had an unrecorded heritage of probably well over a thousand years, given that the region down to the Rhône River was an active Roman settlement. Still today the region has a reputation of growing ‘a little of everything and not much of anything’ using its amazing system of terraces. Despite being partially cut into the volcanic rock, and surrounded by other cottages in varying states of repair and renovation, the house itself was semi-detached:

Photo: View of the terrace itself.

When in 1994 I acquired the house some renovation had already been undertaken – badly! The roof leaked and pipes from a recently installed bathroom and kitchen blocked often; the pipes that had been used were too narrow. The centre of the house’s ‘waste treatment system’, if you could call it that, was a 200 litre (45 gallon) drum buried under the terrace. I only discovered it, one evening, when I was having drinks on said terrace. In one area the terrace started to ‘cave in’ when ‘chipboard’ above the drum collapsed! The system was extremely primitive but it did at least have a long soak away that successfully fertilised and irrigated my neighbour’s highly successful market garden!

Photo: View of the front of the house.

After ten years I decided to renovate and extend my property. I purchased a small piece of adjoining land from a neighbour. In a specially constructed ‘treatment room’ under my now extended terrace, I built what all my French friends considered a state of the art ‘fosse septique’ (septic tank). It was at one point suggested that, because the view from this ‘room’ were so amazing, I might even consider sleeping there… I never actually did so! However given my house was only occupied for between 6 and 12 weeks each year, the system seemed entirely adequate. (And I was often told that mine was the ‘Rolls Royce’ of ‘fosse septiques’ in the village!)

Photo: View from the terrace above the contained ‘fosse septique’ (septic tank). And no, I never did actually sleep there!

By 2010, I was being asked by the mayor about reed beds that he was considering installing in the central area. However these were never constructed, and ‘waste water treatment’ dropped out of our conversation. Consequently, and to my considerable surprise, when recently, very sadly I decided I had to sell my little home, this murmured legislation had come into force.

There are, in fact, now several pieces of relevant and current legislation that affect domestic properties like mine. The first came into effect in January 1992. It stipulated that all household wastewater must be processed in the correct manner, by means of a ‘fosse toutes eaux’ (a septic tank that accepts all waste waters) plus a filtration system. Gone then were the (seemingly) good old days when households could drain dirty water into the surrounding soil or nearby ditch(es)!  Responsibility for enforcing this law was given to the local communes, that, in response, created their own professional body to ensure compliance. Yet another government agency (with all its requisite paperwork) was born. It was called the ‘Service Public d’Assainissement Non Collectif’ or SPANC for short.

The second legislation was effected in 2011. It thus became a legal requirement to include a ‘conformité fosse septique’ (a septic tank compliance certificate) in the legal package needed when selling a house. This certificate, usually issued by SPANC, assesses the conformity of the existing sewage treatment system to prevailing laws and, if noting any defects, makes both the vendor and potential purchaser aware of any required remedial actions. Additionally, European Law by this point, had also had its say, by introducing the European Standard CSN EN 12566-3 2005. This applies to ‘Small wastewater treatment systems for up to 50 PE [population equivalent]’ (also ‘Packaged and/or site assembled domestic wastewater treatment plants’). Subsequently it was ruled that by the end of 2012 that all sewage treatment systems in Europe that discharged effluent directly into ditches or watercourses would be illegal, unless they conformed to this standard.

The French, seemingly not to be outdone by Europe, added an additional criteria to this standard. The eventual outcome then was that every individual sewage treatment system in France would, at one time or another, be inspected by SPANC to assess its conformity to the prevailing laws. All sewage treatment systems in France would have to conform to the French standard NF EN 12566-3+A1 (A1 being the additional French bit; NF EN referring to ‘Normes Françaises’ deriving from European law!). For those that did not comply, a maximum of 12 months would be granted to rectify any issues or defects.

Although all quite a surprise, I would normally have regarded as ‘excellent environmental protection’ progress. That is, had it not been that the necessary treatment plant for compliance in the case of my house would have to sited on land owned by my neighbour, i.e. on the next terrace down the mountain! Happily though I had the good fortune to have a very generous neighbour. She agreed that the new tanks could be buried under her land. After reinstatement they only have their inspection covers showing, and nothing else is visible for her. Nevertheless, without such an agreement – and amiable neighbour – my estate agent believed that my house would have been unsellable!

Clearly environmental legislation in France is moving at a pace. However it will be very interesting to see, over time, how well this new legislation is policed in difficult geographical rural areas, like the one in which I used to own such a charming house! (Sadly, no longer…)

Roger Ford

Note: Septic tank featured image taken from Wikipedia here.

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