Ireland has been fined €3.5m by the European Court of Justice for failing to comply with environmental law - the first time such penalties have been imposed.

The cases relate to Ireland's failure to regulate septic tanks, and to correctly transpose an EU Directive on environmental impact assessments.

The court imposed a lump-sum fine of €2m, as well as a daily fine of €12,000 for each day of delay in implementing a court judgment from 2009.

This is the first time such penalties have been imposed on Ireland and it is a severe embarrassment to this Government and its predecessors.

The judgment found that human health had been put at risk because discharges from septic tanks had threatened drinking water.

The court also ruled that Ireland failed to correctly transpose and apply EU legislation on environmental impact assessment and imposed a fine of €1.5m.

The court found that the thresholds for undertaking an environmental impact study for certain types of projects were too high, which led to loss of wetlands without any assessments being required.

However, daily fines were not imposed on Ireland in this case, because the court found that Ireland has now finally implemented its 2008 ruling.

The court said today's judgments should remind the member states of their duty to implement the judgments of the court in a timely manner and that the failure to do so carries the risk of financial sanctions.

The Friends of the Irish Environment has said the ruling illustrates the inertia that has characterised successive governments’ approach to environmental law.

The environmental lobby group said Ireland now had the reputation of being a reluctant jurisdiction.

FIE said it hoped the fines would act as a powerful incentive for the Government to finally act, particularly given there were five other cases pending before the court which could result in fines.

The cases include implementation of aspects of the Waste Directive and the Habitats Directive.

It is currently unclear as to when Ireland will have to start paying the €12,000 daily fine regarding septic tanks.

Meanwhile, Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan said he had established a dedicated Environmental Compliance Unit in order to engage actively with the European Commission in reducing the number of 'live' infringements of EU law.

The minister said success has been achieved in reducing the number of 'open' cases from the high of 34 cases back in 2009 to 12 cases currently.

He said he is hopeful of closing several of the remaining infringements in the coming months.

Minister Hogan also said it should be noted that the daily fines which have been imposed from today will be closed off as soon as the EPA inspection plan is finalised and this will happen early in the new year.