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Finland dumps tough household wastewater treatment rules

After years of intense negotiation, new guidelines for treating wastewater and sewage remote areas came into force on Monday. The updated rules will affect most summer cottage owners and rural residents, and are considerably more lenient than previous provisions.

How close is your summer cottage to the water? Image: Ismo Pekkarinen / AOP

New less-stringent legislation regarding treatment of domestic wastewater and sewage in areas outside sewer networks in Finland came into effect on April 3. Finland is full of summer cottages that act as a second home in the summer months, and as a sparsely populated country, approximately one million people live in year-round homes not connected to the municipal sewage network.

The new decree calls on owners of property containing groundwater deposits or which are located less than 100 meters from the shore to have a wastewater treatment plan in place by the end of October 2019. Other properties must comply only when owners undertake potential renovation or construction work.

If a property cannot be connected to the sewer network, the environmental impact of the domestic wastewater must be reduced by at least 90 percent for organic matter (BOD7), 85 percent for phosphorus, and at least 40 percent for nitrogen. This is possible with one of several wastewater treatment options: a septic tank, a holding tank, a soil infiltration or sand filter system or a so-called package plant.

The daily person-equivalent load in untreated domestic wastewater is defined as 50 grams of organic matter, 2.2 grams of phosphorus and 14 grams of total nitrogen.

Putting off the hefty investment

Timo Sarlin is CEO of Wavin-Labko, a Finnish manufacturer of wastewater treatment systems. He is hoping business will pick up now that the new legislation has come into force. Sales were slow for the last few years, as property owners waited for clear guidelines before investing in equipment. 

"The new decree relaxes the original act significantly, as in practice, it says that traditional methods that have been on the market for decades will still be accepted," he said.

In 1991 the European Economic Community, the precursor of the European Union, introduced a directive requiring all member states to establish wastewater collection networks and treatment systems for all settlements with a population over 2,000. Finland became a member of the European Union in 1995 and had to comply with its legislation.

Cottage owners in Finland admit that the worst aspects of the previous legislation have been eliminated with the new decree. The strictest regulations now only apply to waterfront villas, and cabins situated on dry land will have less to worry about. The 100-metre rule is still contentious, however, says Pentti Heikkurinen of the national holiday home residents' association, but he doesn't expect any more major disputes.

In the past few years in Finland, the wastewater regulations were the source of major discontent, as they would have required considerable investments by home- and cottage-owners throughout the country.  The vocal backlash caused by the law change eventually led to today's softer language.

Buildings in areas that can be connected to communal sewer networks in the foreseeable future can be excluded, and elderly home owners and occupants can apply for a waiver, which is valid for a maximum of five years at a time.

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