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Brussels, 12 December 2006

Environment: Commission takes Finland, Sweden and Portugal to Court over waste water treatment

The European Commission is taking Finland, Sweden and Portugal to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) for failing to ensure proper treatment of urban waste water in a significant number of towns and cities. The failure of Finland and Sweden to systematically remove nitrogen when treating the waste water of their inland cities and towns is contributing to the environmental problems of the Baltic Sea. Portugal has failed to respect a special decision on urban waste water discharges from Estoril, near Lisbon, and the surrounding area.

Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said: "Finland and Sweden are rightly concerned about the state of the Baltic Sea, but they can help to make it healthier by improving their own waste water treatment. Indeed, European law requires this"

Urban Waste Water Directive

Larger towns and cities across the European Union are required to collect and treat their urban waste water under the EU Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive.[1] Untreated waste water can be contaminated with harmful bacteria and viruses and thus present a risk to public health. It also contains nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous which can damage freshwaters and the marine environment by promoting excessive growth of algae that chokes off other life: depletion of oxygen can sometimes lead to fish-kills. This process is known as eutrophication. The main type of waste water treatment envisaged by the Directive is secondary (i.e biological). The deadline for this infrastructure to be operational was 31 December 2000. If waste water is discharged into ‘sensitive’ water bodies, the Directive requires a stricter treatment, involving removal of phosphorous and/or nitrogen. This was to have been in place by 31 December 1998.

Finland recognises all of its coastal waters and Sweden most of its coastal waters as being sensitive. This reflects wider concerns that the whole of the Baltic Sea is suffering eutrophication due to excessive inputs of nutrients, especially nitrogen, from the countries around it. The Commission considers that Finland and Sweden are contributing to the poor state of the Baltic because, although both countries have a significant network of treatment plants, neither country systematically removes nitrogen from the urban waste water discharges of their larger inland cities and towns (about 76 in the case of Finland and 60 in the case of Sweden). Both countries maintain that such removal is unnecessary as rivers and lakes slow the transfer of nitrogen to the Baltic by means of natural retention.

The Commission is not convinced by this argument. In a comparable case, Italy was condemned by the Court of Justice in 2002 for failing to protect the delta of the River Po on the Adriatic Sea from the urban waste water discharges of Milan, a city located over three hundred kilometres inland[2]. The Commission is therefore taking both Finland and Sweden to Court for breaching the requirements of the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive.


Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said: " Portugal needs to bring its waste water treatment up to standard quickly in order to safeguard the health of its citizens as well as of its many visitors. "

Portugal has failed to respect the terms of a 2001 Commission Decision[3] which approved a lower level of treatment for discharges into the sea at Estoril, an area whose homes and businesses produce the waste water of over 700,000 people. This exemption, the only one that been granted anywhere in the EU to date, required Portugal to put in place advanced basic (primary) treatment along with disinfection during the summer bathing season. This has not been done, and consequently the Commission has decided to bring Portugal before the ECJ.

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 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.
For current statistics on infringements in general see:

[1] Directive 91/271/EEC

[2] Case C-396/00, Commission v Italy

[3] Decision 2001/720/EC

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