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Brussels, 30 June 2006

Portugal: Commission sends final warnings over environmental infringements

The European Commission is continuing legal action against Portugal over three breaches of EU law to protect human health and the environment. In each case Portugal is being sent a final written warning that it will be taken to the European Court of Justice unless the infringement is rectified in the near future. The breaches concern serious shortcomings in Portugal’s management of industrial waste, a leisure development that threatens to damage an important nature conservation site, and inadequate treatment of waste water from a major coastal city near Lisbon.

Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said: “I hope these warnings will result in swift action by the Portuguese authorities to rectify the problems we have identified. We would much rather see concrete results that improve levels of protection for citizens and the environment than have to take these cases to Court.”

Industrial waste

The Commission has decided to send Portugal a final written warning over failures in its management of hazardous and non-hazardous industrial wastes. In the Commission's view Portugal does not adequately register the quantities of such wastes nor does it properly treat them. These shortcomings constitute violations of the EU's Waste Framework Directive[1] and pose a risk to human health and the environment and the Hazardous Waste Directive[2], A 2003 inventory of waste produced in Portugal showed that the actual volume of hazardous industrial waste was some 20% higher than the amount declared by operators. In the case of non-hazardous industrial waste the gap was even wider. This indicates that large amounts of hazardous and non-hazardous wastes are not being registered or treated adequately. This poses a number of problems for the environment and human health. Over recent years the Portuguese authorities have drawn up various strategic plans for improving the management of industrial wastes but none has been adequately implemented.

The Commission is therefore sending a final warning that it will take Portugal to the European Court of Justice if the Portuguese authorities do not remedy these failures in the near future.

Development inside nature conservation area

The Commission is also sending a final written warning over a large urban resort and golf course ('Quinta da Ombria') that is planned inside a nature conservation area of EU importance in the Algarve region (southern Portugal).

An environmental impact assessment, though not exhaustive, has found that the project, with a capacity of 1700 beds and covering an area of 143 ha, would have significant effects on at least three types of rare habitats covered by the EU’s Habitats Directive. This Directive aims at safeguarding important natural habitats and wild flora and fauna across the EU.[3] The development would also have a significant effect on one species of plant, Thymus lotocephalus (Portuguese thyme), which under the directive is considered as meriting extra strict (“priority”) protection.

The Commission therefore considers that the Portuguese authorities have failed to take the necessary measures to safeguard the ecological interest of the site and thus have not complied with the Habitats Directive. The project is one of several potential threats to the EU's Natura 2000 network of protected nature sites from uncontrolled urban development along Portugal's southern coast.

In addition, the impact assessment has pointed out that dangerous substances in fertilisers used on the golf course could pollute an aquifer that is considered strategic for the region. This would be a breach of the EU’s directive protecting groundwater against pollution by dangerous substances.[4]

Waste water treatment

Portugal is being sent a final written warning over inadequate treatment of urban waste water from the major Estoril area, which comprises a number of towns in the west of the Lisbon region with a total population of more than 720,000 people.

The EU directive on urban waste water treatment[5] requires that waste water from towns and cities with a population of more than 15,000 people, or with the equivalent output of waste water from other sources, must be collected and undergo secondary (biological) treatment before being discharged into the sea or fresh waters. This should have been done by the end of 2000.

In a 2001 Decision the Commission allowed Portugal to make use of an exemption provision in the directive and to apply less than secondary treatment to waste waters discharged into the Atlantic from the Estoril agglomeration, on the grounds that more advanced treatment would not produce any environmental benefit. The Decision was linked to the fulfilment of certain requirements on the quality of water discharged, particularly during the bathing season, as well as to certain monitoring and reporting requirements.

The Commission is now pursuing legal action because information provided by Portugal shows that five years after the derogation was granted, waste water discharged from the agglomeration does not meet even the lower standards allowed under the Decision and is not improving. For example, more than 20% of samples show levels of faecal bacteria in excess of those allowed by the Decision.

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 75/442, amended by Directive 91/156

[2] Directive 91/689

[3] Directive 92/43

[4] Directive 80/68

[5] Directive 91/271

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