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Brussels, 14 January 2005

Spain: Commission pursues legal action over breaches of EU environmental law

The European Commission has decided to pursue infringement proceedings against Spain in five cases involving EU environment law. The legislation in question relates to waste-water treatment, disposal of waste and nature conservation. The Commission’s actions are aimed at cleaning up a polluted bathing water at Sueca in Valencia, cleaning up uncontrolled landfills in Almería, and protecting important nature sites in Catalonia, Castilla y Leon, Alicante and Balearic Islands. In three cases Spain is to be referred to the Court of Justice. In the last two cases Spain will receive final warnings, the last step before Court action.

Environment Commissioner, Stavros Dimas, said: "EU environmental directives are there to help Spain protect its rich biodiversity and the natural resources such as fine bathing waters that draw so many visitors. I therefore urge the Spanish authorities to redouble their efforts to correctly implement these directives."

Decisions to refer Spain to the Court of Justice

The Commission has decided to refer Spain to the Court in three cases:

  • The first decision concerns water pollution problems at a beach in Valencia. Spain has contravened the Urban Waste Water Directive[1] and the Bathing Water Directive[2] at Sueca, in the region of Valencia. The Spanish authorities have failed to adequately upgrade wastewater treatment and thereby end water pollution of the beach at Motilla, an area that has been designated as sensitive by the Spanish authorities. The Spanish authorities have indicated that construction work is underway for the treatment of urban waste water, but under the Urban Waste Water Directive this should have been completed by 31 December 1998.
  • The second decision concerns three uncontrolled waste disposal sites in the province of Almería: at Níjar, at Hoyo de Miguel and at Cueva Del Mojón. These sites do not hold any permits, or they have permits that do not meet the requirements of the Waste Framework Directive[3] and the Landfill Directive[4]. The Waste Framework Directive defines “waste” and lays down basic requirements for how Member States are to deal with it. The Landfill Directive establishes a set of detailed rules in order to prevent or minimise the negative effects that landfill sites for waste can have, including pollution of soil, air and water and risks to human health.

Among other things, operators of landfills must provide so-called "conditioning plans" for landfills that were already operating on 16 July 2001 when the Landfill Directive entered into force. These plans determine whether the sites meet the conditions to continue to operate and, if necessary, outline how they need to be upgraded to meet the conditions. Permits are dependent on the delivery and implementation of the conditioning plans.

  • The third decision relates to the failure to assess the effects of sand extraction and beach regeneration on important nature sites along the Spanish Mediterranean coast, mainly in the province of Alicante and on the Balearic Islands. The sites in question host rare or endangered species and habitats such as the sea turtle Caretta caretta and Posidonia beds (underwater fields of Posidonia, an aquatic plant) and are proposed as Natura 2000 sites under the Habitats Directive[5]. This EU law protects a range of rare and endangered animals and plants, as well as a selection of habitat types, by making them part of the EU’s network of protected areas known as Natura 2000. Among other things, the Directive requires the assessment, before they are carried out, of potentially damaging plans and projects that may affect Natura 2000 sites. However, the Spanish authorities have failed to assess the effects of the projects concerned on these sites, violating the Habitats Directive as well as the Environment Impact Assessment Directive[6]. The latter EU law also requires the prior assessment of environmentally significant projects.

Final warnings sent to Spain

In two cases, the Commission has sent Spain final written warnings, known as “Reasoned Opinions,” aimed at securing compliance with EU environmental laws. In the absence of satisfactory responses, the Commission may later decide to refer these cases to the Court:

  • The first warning relates to an irrigation project in the province of Lleida (Catalonia) that will adversely affect an area that has been identified as important for steppic wild bird species. Steppic habitats, which in south-western Europe are generally dry, treeless, open farmland areas, support a specialized community of birds. These threatened species have particular habitat requirements and have suffered declines due to land use changes. Steppic birds affected by the Catalonian project include Bonelli’s Eagle, the Stone Curlew, the Black-bellied Sandgrouse, the Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, the Dupont’s Lark and the Lesser Grey Shrike. The area concerned has not been designated by Spain as a Special Protection Area under the Wild Birds Directive,[7] but case-law of the European Court of Justice has established that Member States must protect such undesignated sites where they merit designation.
  • The second case concerns several proposed open-cast mining projects to be located inside an important nature site in the province of Leon (Castilla y Leon). The site has been nominated by Spain for protection under the Habitats Directive. The Commission considers that the Spanish authorities have failed to undertake a proper assessment of the projects under both the Habitats Directive and the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive[8]. They have failed to show that there was no alternative to the projects and to adopt measures to compensate for the ecological damage the mining projects will cause.

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" (second and final written warning) to the Member State. This clearly and definitively sets out the reasons why it considers there to have been an infringement of EU law and calls upon the Member State to comply within a specified period, normally two months.

If the Member State fails to comply with the Reasoned Opinion, the Commission may decide to bring the case before the European 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, again by issuing a first written warning (“Letter of Formal Notice”) and then a second and final written warning (“Reasoned Opinion”). The article then 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:

For rulings by the European Court of Justice see:

[1] Council Directive 91/271/EEC

[2] Council Directive 76/160/EEC

[3] Council Directive 75/442/EEC as amended by Directive 91/156/EEC

[4] Council Directive 1999/31/EC

[5] Directive 92/43/EEC

[6] Directive 85/337/EEC as amended by Directive 97/11/EC

[7] Council Directive 79/409/EEC

[8] Council Directive 85/337/EEC as amended by Directive 97/11/EC

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