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Brussels, 20 December 2005

Environment: Commission to pursue legal action against Greece over infringements

The European Commission has decided to pursue legal action against Greece over four cases where EU rules to protect human health and the environment are being violated. The cases concern management of hazardous and non-hazardous wastes, water protection and bird conservation. In one of the cases the Commission is taking Greece to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) over Greece’s failure to clean up an illegal waste dump in Crete. Greece has already been condemned by the Court twice over this dump, and made to pay a substantial fine.

Waste cases

Two of the cases concern waste management, a problematic area in Greece. It should be recalled that in a case brought by the Commission, the ECJ ruled in October[1] that Greece had violated several key requirements of the Waste Framework Directive[2]. This Directive is the central pillar of EU legislation designed to ensure environmentally sound waste management in member states. Greece admitted in hearings before the ECJ that it had 1,125 uncontrolled waste dumps last year. However, according to a more recent inventory, 1,458 illegal or uncontrolled waste dumps were still operational in May 2005.

Waste dump in Crete

In 2000 the ECJ fined Greece a daily penalty of €20,000 for violations of the Waste Framework Directive in Crete. The main focus of the case was the operation of an illegal rubbish dump at the mouth of the River Kouroupitos in Chania prefecture. The Court also ordered the closure of the dump, which had been operating since at least 1988. Greece paid a fine totalling €4.72 million until the Commission was satisfied that the dump had been closed in February 2001. Following the closure, waste was diverted to a temporary storage site at Messomouri pending the construction of permanent waste management installations at Korakia.

The new case against Greece concerns its failure to clean up the Kouroupitos and Messomouri sites. A report produced for the Commission by independent experts in 2003 pointed to several problems at both sites that posed risks to human health and the environment. At the Kouroupitos dump, soil had been put over the site to cover it but much had been washed away by rain. Waste was still burning inside the dump, causing potentially toxic emissions. Concern was expressed about the stability of the site and a potential risk of landslides as a result.

The Messomouri site had become an illegal dump. Many of the bales of waste stored there had burst and high concentrations of methane gas were measured. Liquid from the site was not being collected or treated but was flowing into a ravine that leads to the sea. Though intended to be a temporary waste storage site, Messomouri operated for more than a year due to delays in construction of the permanent installations at Korakia.

The Commission sent Greece a first warning over the sites in April 2004 and a final written warning in March 2005. The latter argued that Greece was violating the Waste Framework Directive at both sites. Among other things, the framework directive requires member states to ensure that waste is disposed of without endangering human health or harming the environment, and to rehabilitate non-compliant sites. In addition, the Commission considered that the 1999 EU Landfill Directive[3] was being breached at Messomouri since, following the site’s closure, the authorities had not put in place the after-care measures required by the directive.

The Greek authorities have replied that since Messomouri was closed in January 2003 half of the waste bundles stored there have been transferred to the new landfill at Korakia, while the other half do not pose a “direct danger” to human health or the environment. The authorities are in the process of seeking funding for the completion of the rehabilitation project. Regarding Kouroupitos, the Region of Crete approved a clean-up plan for the site in May 2005 with EU co-financing, but the project has not yet been implemented.

Since it is clear that there has been no significant change in the situation at the two sites, the Commission has decided to refer the case to the ECJ.

Hazardous waste management

The Commission has decided to send a final written warning to Greece over systematic structural shortcomings in its management and disposal of hazardous waste. This follows an analysis of reports provided by the Greek authorities on their implementation of the EU Hazardous Waste Directive during the period 1998-2003. The directive creates a framework for environmentally sound management of hazardous wastes as well as defining which wastes are considered hazardous and which not.

The Commission’s analysis shows that:

Contrary to its obligations under the Hazardous Waste Directive, Greece has still not established an adequate, integrated network of installations for disposing of such waste by means of the most appropriate methods to ensure a high level of protection for the environment and public health. Despite the construction of a few installations for the disposal or recovery of some categories of hazardous waste (e.g. waste oils), the practice mostly used by Greek authorities is the continuous “temporary storage” of waste. However, sites used for temporary storage of waste for more than one year are considered under EU law as landfills, and should therefore comply with the provisions of both the Landfill Directive and the Waste Framework Directive.

Greece’s management plan for hazardous waste does not comply with the requirements of EU waste management legislation since it does not specify suitable disposal sites or installations.

The Commission sent Greece a first written warning in March 2005. The Greek authorities have replied that a new legislative framework for the management of hazardous waste is expected to be adopted by the end of this year. However, since the situation on the ground has not changed, the Commission has decided to pursue its action.

Bird protection

Under the EU directive on the protection and conservation of wild birds,[4] member states must designate special protection areas (SPAs) for the birds covered by the directive. Interpreting this provision, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has stated that member states should also give the designated SPAs an appropriate legal protection regime that is capable of achieving the conservation objectives of the species and habitats concerned.

Greece’s legislation provides for the establishment of such a legal protection regime for its 151 SPAs, but this has not been implemented in practice for the large majority of the SPAs. The Commission consequently sent a first written warning in December 2004. In their reply the Greek authorities recognised that the procedures for the adoption of specific legal regimes were still under way, but claimed that the existing general protection measures were in any case sufficient. This reasoning has recently been rejected by the ECJ regarding the protection of one of Greece’s SPAs, the Messolongi lagoon.[5] As a result, the Commission has decided to issue a final written warning to Greece on the general shortcomings of its legislation.

Water protection

This case concerns incomplete transposition into Greek law of several provisions of the Water Framework Directive[6], the cornerstone of EU water protection policy. Greece has transposed the directive through a general legislative framework which is to be implemented through presidential decrees or decisions. However these implementing measures, which are necessary for a full transposition, have not yet been adopted and transmitted to the Commission.

The Commission sent Greece a first written warning in July 2005. Greece has replied that draft implementing legislation is being prepared but has given no concrete timetable for its adoption. The Commission has consequently decided to send Greece a final written warning.

Legal Process

Article 226 of the Treaty gives the Commission powers to take legal action against a Member State that is not respecting its obligations.

If the Commission considers that there may be an infringement of EU law that warrants the opening of an infringement procedure, it addresses a "Letter of Formal Notice" (first written warning) to the Member State concerned, requesting it to submit its observations by a specified date, usually two months.

In the light of the reply or absence of a reply from the Member State concerned, the Commission may decide to address a "Reasoned Opinion" (final written warning) to the Member State. This clearly and definitively sets out the reasons why the Commission considers that there has been an infringement of EU law, and calls upon the Member State to comply within a specified period, usually two months.

If the Member State fails to comply with the Reasoned Opinion, the Commission may decide to bring the case before the Court of Justice. Where the Court of Justice finds that the Treaty has been infringed, the offending Member State is required to take the measures necessary to conform.

Article 228 of the Treaty gives the Commission power to act against a Member State that does not comply with a previous judgement of the European Court of Justice. The article also allows the Commission to ask the Court to impose a financial penalty on the Member State concerned.
For current statistics on infringements in general see:

[1] Case C-502/03

[2] Directive 75/442/EEC, as amended by Directive 91/156/EEC

[3] Directive 99/31/EC

[4] Directive 79/409/EEC

[5] Case C-166/04

[6] Directive 2000/60/EC

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