Spain: Commission pursues legal action over breaches of environmental law
European Commission - IP/08/1802 27/11/2008
Brussels, 27 November 2008
The European Commission is pursuing legal action against Spain involving three breaches of EU environmental law. Two of the breaches relate to obligations for the treatment of waste water, with more than 400 towns and cities listed as not having water treatment up to EU standard. The final warnings are the last step before the Commission takes Court action. In the other case, Spain will receive a final warning for a breach in relation to open-cast coal mining in a Natura 2000 site in Castilla y León.
Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said: "I am very concerned that in a Member State where water is a valuable and a scarce resource, a high number of towns and cities are discharging waste water that has not been properly treated into rivers and the sea, including in sensitive areas. I urge Spain to take immediate steps to remedy this situation. It is also essential to ensure that EU nature legislation is properly implemented to protect Spain's precious and rich biodiversity.”
Inadequate urban waste water treatment
In two parallel cases concerning the 1991 directive on Urban Waste Water Treatment, the Commission is sending final warnings to Spain.
In the first case, the Commission considers that some 343 Spanish towns and cities are discharging urban waste water into already designated sensitive or potentially sensitive areas without appropriate treatment. This constitutes a breach of the directive, according to which towns and cities of more than 10,000 inhabitants which discharge water into environmentally sensitive areas should have been equipped with a collection and treatment system meeting the most stringent quality standards (known as tertiary treatment) by the end of 1998.
A Commission assessment also confirms that six potentially sensitive areas remain to be designated and an area designated as less sensitive in the Cantabria region does not meet the directive's requirements. The Commission has therefore decided to send Spain a final warning letter over the case.
In the second case, the issue at stake is the lack of compliance with the directive in larger towns and cities. Under the directive, urban areas with more than 15,000 inhabitants were required to have adequate collection and treatment systems by the end of 2000. The Commission considers that 59 such towns and cities are not compliant. A final warning letter has also been sent in this case.
If Spain does not respond satisfactorily to these issues within two months, the Commission may decide to take the cases to the European Court of Justice.
Open-cast mining threatens nature sites
This case concerns a long-term investigation by the Commission into several open-cast mining projects in the Laciana Valley in the region of Castilla y León. These are located inside an important nature site, “Alto Sil”, which is home to the brown bear and the Capercaillie grouse, critically endangered species protected under the Birds and Habitats Directives.
A warning letter was sent to Spain in February 2008 for failing to assess adequately the effects of the projects under both the Habitats Directive and the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive.
After a site inspection, the Commission still considers that the mining activities are likely to affect the habitats of both species adversely and has therefore decided to send a second and final written warning.
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 within 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" (second and 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, normally two months.
If the Member State fails to comply with the Reasoned Opinion, the Commission may decide to bring the case before the European 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 further information on infringements in general, including current statistics, please visit the following web-site:
 Council Directive 91/271/EEC
 Council Directive 85/337 EEC as amended by Directive 97/11/EC