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Brussels, 22 March 2007

Ireland: Commission takes action to secure clean drinking water and citizens' rights

The European Commission is sending Ireland a final written warning for failing to comply fully with a 2002 European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling requiring drinking water supplies to be kept free of E.coli bacteria. It is sending Ireland a similar warning for failing to comply with a 2005 ECJ ruling requiring greater controls on polluting discharges to surface water by local authorities. If the responses are unsatisfactory, the Commission may ask the ECJ to impose financial penalties on Ireland. The Commission is also referring Ireland to the ECJ for failing to give adequate rights to citizens to legally challenge decisions in cases involving environmental impact assessments and integrated pollution prevention and control. At the same time, action taken by Ireland to ban drift-netting of Atlantic wild salmon at sea has allowed a case to be closed.

Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said: “I am concerned that, more than four years after a court ruling, and despite substantial Government investments, a significant number of local authority and private water supplies still show a presence of e.coli." This needs to be resolved without further delay."

Polluted drinking water

On 14 November 2002, Ireland was condemned by the European Court of Justice over the microbiological contamination of hundreds of public and private water supplies.[1] The EU's Drinking Water Directive[2] requires an absence of e.coli in drinking water supplies in order to protect human health. These bacteria point to a high risk of human pathogens being present. Despite substantial Government investments, a significant number of local authority and private water supplies still show a presence of e.coli. More than half of private group water supplies in Counties Cavan, Kerry, Leitrim, Mayo, Donegal and Sligo breached the e.coli standard in 2005. Causes include sources polluted by animal wastes and defective septic tanks, absence of treatment, inadequate treatment and failure to maintain treatment equipment properly.

Controls on local authority polluting discharges

On 2 June 2005, the Court found against Ireland for not having an authorisation system for local authority water discharges of dangerous substances[3] under an EU directive on control of water pollution[4].

Lack of or inadequate treatment of the urban wastewater discharges of towns and villages is one of the main causes of surface water pollution in Ireland. This pollution harms fish habitats and makes it more difficult to provide safe drinking water. Ireland's environment ministry has committed itself to a new licensing system for local authority treatment plants and collecting systems to be managed by Ireland's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Drafts have been presented to the Commission but adopted legislation is still not in place twenty-five years after it became due. The ECJ ruling also requires new pollution controls on fish-farms, a matter under the responsibility of Ireland's marine ministry. The ministry has failed to provide any clear details of how and when the ruling will be satisfied..

Right of citizens to bring legal challenges without prohibitive expense

The Commission has decided to refer Ireland to the European Court of Justice for failing to adopt and provide correct information on measures to give effect to the EU's Public Participation Directive.[5] The Directive implements an international agreement, the Aarhus Convention, which promotes public participation in environmental decision-making. The Directive requires Member States to give citizens the right to challenge the legality of public authority decisions under EU legislation on environmental impact assessment[6] and integrated pollution prevention and control.[7] Such decisions can have profound effects on the environment, for example by damaging nature sites or allowing urban sprawl that limits the long-term possibility for citizens to lead lives with lower carbon impacts. The relevant procedures should have been in place by 25 June 2005. Ireland, the only Member State not to have ratified the Aarhus Convention, has argued that the Irish courts already uphold the right through a system of judicial review and that additional legislation is unnecessary. However, although not informed of this by the Irish Government, the Commission has learnt that, during 2006, the Irish High Court expressly refused to apply the Public Participation Directive.[8]

Case on wild salmon closed

The Commission has decided to close a case concerning drift-net fishing at sea for wild Atlantic salmon, Salmo salar. It had sent Ireland a final written warning in 2006 for breaching the EU Habitats Directive,[9] which gives protection to the salmon. The Irish marine ministry has since banned drift-netting at sea and introduced more rigorous requirements for the assessment of different forms of exploitation of salmon stocks.

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.

[1] Case C-316/00

[2] Currently, Directive 98/83/EC, which replaces Directive 80/778/EEC, the EU legislation in force at the time of the Court judgment.

[3] Case C-282/02

[4] Directive 2006/11/EC, formerly Directive 76/464/EEC

[5] Directive 2003/35/EEC

[6] Directive 85/337/EEC

[7] Directive 96/61/EC

[8] Friends of the Curragh Environment Ltd [2006] IEHC 243 (14 July 2006). In a later judgment of 8 December 2006, the High Court noted: " Directive 2003/35/EC is not yet implemented in this jurisdiction." It is understood that an appeal is pending before the Irish Supreme Court but in any case clear unambiguous implementation by the deadline of 25 June 2005 was not achieved.

[9] Directive 92/43

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