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IP/07/393

Brussels, 22 March 2007

Portugal: Commission continues legal action over environmental and human health infringements

The European Commission is referring Portugal to the European Court of Justice over its failure to implement an EU law on urban waste water treatment. It is also launching infringement procedures against Portugal for not complying with three Court judgements on the quality of drinking water, the construction of a section of the A2 motorway through an important nature protection area, and unjustified changes to another nature protection area.

Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said: "It is important that Portugal comply with these Court judgements, since they have a direct bearing on public health and the conservation of important natural areas. The Commission has no choice but to continue with legal action if we are to achieve the level of environmental protection intended in our legislation."

Urban and waste water treatment

The Commission is referring Portugal to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) for not properly implementing an EU Directive on urban waste water treatment[1] whereby waste water from towns and cities with populations of more than 15 000 must be collected and must undergo secondary (biological) treatment before being discharged into the sea or into fresh water. This should have been done by the end of 2000.

Yet in 29 of the urban areas concerned by this Directive, the required collection and/or treatment systems are still not in place. For instance in Lisbon, the waste water treatment plant of Alcântara is not operational. In Matosinhos in the region of Oporto, only primary (basic) treatment is in place. In Costa de Aveiro, 60% of the polluting load generated is not collected and 65% is not treated. In Povoa do Varzim /Vila do Conde, 60% of the load is not collected and the level of treatment in place is unknown.

Quality of drinking water

The Portuguese authorities have taken some steps to improve water treatment plants, supply networks and other types of infrastructure, following a judgment by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) of 29 September 2005[2] which found against Portugal for not complying with a series of drinking water parameters (iron, manganese, total coliforms, faecal coliforms, faecal streptococci and clostridium). These parameters are laid down in an EU Directive on the quality of water intended for human consumption.[3]

However, Portugal still does not comply with some of those parameters. For example, almost 50% of water supply zones do not comply as regards total coliforms, while 20% of the zones do not comply with the faecal coliforms parameter. The situation improved in 2004, the most recent year for which Portugal provided data. However the information provided for 2004 is not totally comparable and in any case it still shows a situation of non-compliance, for total coliforms, faecal coliforms, iron and manganese. The Commission is therefore sending Portugal a first written warning asking it to comply with the Court ruling.

Environmental impact assessment of a project in a Special Protection Area

The Commission has decided to send Portugal a first written warning over failure to implement an ECJ judgement of 26 October 2006[4] which found against Portugal for building a section of the A2 motorway through the Castro Verde Special Protection Area (SPA) for wild birds in the Alentejo region. The impact assessment had revealed that this route would have a serious negative impact on several wild birds which live in steppic areas (prairies). The Portuguese authorities had not examined alternative routes which avoided residential areas and the Castro Verde SPA and this section of the motorway was opened to traffic in July 2001. The Court therefore considered that Portugal had breached the Habitats Directive.[5]

In order to implement the Court judgement, Portugal should adopt nature compensation measures such as enlarging the Castro Verde SPA and taking measures to manage it efficiently. Portugal has launched administrative procedures and talks between stakeholders (central authorities, municipalities, NGOs, farmers representatives) to approve the compensation measures but these are still at an early stage and no timetable has been given.

Modification of a Special Protection Area for wild birds

Portugal has also failed to implement another ECJ judgement, of 13 July 2006,[6] which found against Portugal for modifying the Moura-Morao-Barrancos SPA, also in the Alentejo region, without clear and justified ornithological criteria. The Portuguese authorities have only just started discussions between ministries, farmers and municipalities and no timetable for a new designation of the site is available yet. The Commission is therefore sending Portugal a first written warning asking it to comply with the judgement.

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] Directive 91/271/EEC

[2] C-251/2003

[3] Directive 80/77/EEC, revoked by Directive 98/83/EC.

[4] C-239/2004

[5] Directive 92/43/EEC.

[6] C-191/2005


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