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Brussels, 31 January 2008

Waste water treatment: Commission gives France final warning

The European Commission is sending France a final written warning alerting it that it will be taken to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) for the second time and possibly face fines unless it quickly brings its waste water treatment up to EU standards. France is still not complying with the 1991 EU directive on urban waste water treatment, despite having been condemned by the ECJ for this.

Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said: "Untreated urban waste water is a threat to European citizens and detrimental to the environmental quality of Europe's rivers, lakes and coastal waters. I urge France to act swiftly otherwise the Commission will consider asking the Court to impose fines."

The Urban Waste Water Treatment 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, a process known as eutrophication.

The main type of waste water treatment envisaged by the directive is biological or 'secondary' treatment. The deadline for this infrastructure to be operational was 31 December 2000. If waste water is discharged into ‘sensitive’ water bodies, the directive requires stricter 'tertiary' treatment, involving removal of phosphorous and/or nitrogen. This should have been in place by 31 December 1998.

Final warning for France

The Commission is sending France a final warning for failing to comply with a 2004 European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling on the treatment of urban waste water in certain sensitive areas. Under the ruling, the ECJ condemned France for failing to designate eleven areas as sensitive and for inadequate treatment facilities in a number of settlements[2] which discharge their waste waters into these areas. The ECJ also found that 121 settlements breached the directive by discharging their waste waters into previously designated sensitive areas.

In 2006 France designated the eleven areas as sensitive. However, 140 settlements – including the city of Paris – continue to discharge into these sensitive areas. With regard to the 121 settlements discharging into the previously designated sensitive areas France proceeded to rearrange them into 164 settlements, resulting in some settlements no longer meeting the threshold level of 10,000 residents at which the directive applies. The Commission considers such rearranging of settlements to avoid compliance with the directive unacceptable and calls on France to implement the directive in all settlements covered by the ECJ ruling.

In May 2007 France notified the Commission of the settlements' status and its agenda for complying with the ruling. It appears that some remaining settlements will not be equipped with waste water treatment facilities before 2011, some seven years after the ECJ court ruling and 12 years after the deadline set by the directive. The Commission finds this delay deplorable and urges France to build waste water treatment facilities in all concerned settlements as soon as possible.

Should France not respond satisfactorily to its warning, the Commission may ask the Court to impose fines on France.

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] The directive uses the technical term "agglomeration" which means an area where the population and/or economic activities are sufficiently concentrated for urban waste water to be collected and conducted to an urban waste water treatment plant or to a final discharge point.

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