Brussels, 12 December 2006
The European Commission has decided to pursue legal action against Greece over breaches of three EU laws to protect the environment and public health. The Commission is sending Greece a first written warning for failing to comply fully with a European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling requiring it to develop a plan to manage hazardous waste in the heavily polluted area of Thriassio Pedio. This is the first stage in a procedure under which the Commission can ask the ECJ to impose financial penalties if a Member State's response to warnings is unsatisfactory. Greece will also receive final written warnings for continuing to allow the use of fuels with a higher than allowed sulphur content, and for several breaches of the EU law on urban waste water treatment.
“Member States must protect the health of their citizens, and the environment. This should be an overriding concern,” said Stavros Dimas, European Commissioner for the environment.
Hazardous waste: first written warning to comply with Court ruling
The Commission will send Greece a first written warning over its failure to comply fully with a 2005 ECJ judgement on the pollution of underground water by hazardous substances in the area of Thriassio Pedio. Thriassio is a heavily polluted region with a wide range of industries operating in the area. The Court condemned Greece on two grounds. First for not having taken the required measures to prevent the pollution of underground water by certain hazardous substances and second for not having prepared an inventory of these hazardous waste and adopted a plan to manage their disposal. These practices all constitute breaches of the EU directives on the pollution of underground water and on hazardous waste respectively and could put public health and the environment at risk.
Following the court ruling Greece compiled an inventory of hazardous waste present in the region and evaluated the environmental performance of a number of industrial sites. Several sites were closed as a result. However, there is still no adequate management plan for hazardous substances in the region or the country as a whole. The preparation and adoption of waste management plans is an essential obligation of the relevant EU law. The Commission has therefore decided to continue legal action.
High sulphur content in fuel: final written warning
Greece is to receive a final written warning of possible court action over its continued allowance of the use of heavy fuel oil with a sulphur content above the EU limit of 1%. This ceiling has been in force across the EU since 1 January 2003 under the terms of a directive on the sulphur content of liquid fuels which aims to reduce air pollution from sulphur dioxide.
Urban waste water treatment: final written warning
The Commission is also sending Greece a final written warning for several violations of the EU directive on urban waste water treatment. The shortcomings mainly concern lack of sufficient waste water treatment in sensitive areas, where stricter treatment is needed. The Directive requires larger towns and cities to collect and treat their waste water. Untreated waste water can be contaminated with harmful bacteria and viruses and thus present a risk to public health. It can also damage freshwater and the marine environment by promoting excessive growth of algae that chokes off other life, a process known as eutrophication.
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 it considers there to have 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.
 Case no. C-163/03.
 Directive 80/68/EEC on the protection of groundwater against pollution caused by certain dangerous substances.
 Directive 91/689/EEC on hazardous waste.
 Directive 99/32/EC relating to a reduction in the sulphur content of certain liquid fuels.
 Directive 91/271/EEC concerning urban waste-water treatment.