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IP/09/1014

Brussels, 25 June 2009

Commission sends Belgium last warning over waste water case before referring it to the Court

The European Commission is sending a second written warning to Belgium in a case concerning the breach of EU laws on the treatment of urban waste water. In 2004 the European Court of Justice ruled that all Belgian regions lacked sufficient urban waste water collection and treatment systems. The second warning follows an earlier one sent to Belgium in January 2006. Should Belgium's response not be satisfactory the Commission can ask that the Court impose fines on Belgium.

European Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said: "It is imperative that densely populated Member States ensure that the waste water that is released into the environment has been appropriately treated. This is essential for the well-being of the environment but equally so for the health of its own citizens. I strongly urge Belgium to promptly carry out the appropriate measures to clean up the country's waste water."

The Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive

Larger towns and cities across the European Union are required to collect and treat their urban waste water (UWW) under the EU Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive. 1 Untreated urban 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 freshwater and the marine environment by promoting excessive growth of algae which stifles other marine plants, a process known as eutrophication.

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

As the entire Belgian territory is considered a sensitive area all urban waste water must first undergo secondary and tertiary treatment before it is released into the environment.

Urban waste water treatment in Belgian regions

The Commission is sending Belgium a second written warning for not fully complying with a July 2004 European Court of Justice ruling on the treatment of urban waste water in cities of more than 10,000 equivalent-inhabitants in the Brussels Region, Flanders and Wallonia. The Court ruled that over 100 towns and cities in these regions were lacking adequate waste water collecting systems and secondary or tertiary treatment plants, and asked that the situation be remedied. While progress has been made since the ruling, Belgium still does not fulfil all its obligations under the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive 1.

The situation varies between regions. While all larger towns and cities in Flanders are equipped with sufficient urban waste water collecting systems, 20 do not ensure that all collected waste water is appropriately treated before being discharged into the environment. In Wallonia, some 37 larger towns and cities either do not have appropriate urban waste water collecting systems or do not apply the required treatment to their waste water. In the Brussels-Capital Region, where the collection of urban waste water remains insufficient, one of the two Brussels treatment plants only applies secondary treatment and the Commission has not received up-to-date information on the treatment performance of the other.

A first warning letter under Article 228 was sent to Belgium in January 2006 for not complying with the Court ruling. An additional first warning was sent in October 2007 because the response provided by the Belgian regions was not clear enough and required clarification. While progress and considerable investments have been made, the Commission finds it unacceptable that nearly five years after the ECJ ruling and more than 10 years after the deadline for implementing the directive Belgium still does not comply with European urban waste water treatment requirements. In the absence of a satisfactory response, the Commission could refer Belgium to the European Court of Justice and ask that fines be imposed.

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 written warning ("Letter of Formal Notice") to the Member State concerned, requesting it to submit its observations within a specified period, 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 final written warning ("Reasoned Opinion") 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, again by issuing a first written warning (“Letter of Formal Notice”) and then a second and final written warning (“Reasoned Opinion”). The Article then 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:

http://europa.eu.int/comm/secretariat_general/sgb/droit_com/index_en.htm#infractions

For rulings by the European Court of Justice see:

http://curia.eu.int/en/content/juris/index.htm

1 :

Directive 91/271/EEC on urban waste water treatment


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