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Brussels, 24 June 2010

Waste water treatment: Commission seeks substantial fines for Belgium; sends fresh warning to Luxembourg

The European Commission is referring Belgium back to the EU's Court of Justice for its failure to bring the country's waste water treatment up to the standards required by EU law. The Commission has asked the Court to impose a lump-sum fine of more than €15 million and a daily penalty payment of nearly €62.000. Despite an earlier Court ruling in the long-running case, some 40 agglomerations still remain listed as not complying with EU legislation. The Commission is also sending Luxembourg a fresh warning that it will be taken to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) for the second time with the possibility of fines over the same issue. Both Member States are still not complying with the 1991 Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive, despite having been condemned by the EU's Court of Justice for this.

Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik said: "Failing to comply with a Court judgment is a very serious matter. Bringing a Member State back to Court for a second time is not an action the Commission takes lightly. However, untreated urban waste water is detrimental to the quality of Europe's rivers, lakes and coastal waters and a threat to public health. Delays in providing citizens with the necessary levels of protection are unacceptable."

Commission refers Belgium back to Court over waste water treatment

The Commission is referring Belgium back to the EU's Court of Justice for its failure to comply with a previous Court ruling on the collection and treatment of urban waste water.

The Court ruled in July 2004 that Belgium had failed to comply with the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive (91/271/EEC). Under the legislation, all urban waste water generated by agglomerations of over 10,000 people must be collected and then treated before being discharged into the environment. As Belgium has designated its entire national territory as a "sensitive area" (i.e. an area that suffers from eutrophication or which may suffer from it in the absence of protective measures), the treatment must be more stringent to significantly reduce phosphorous and nitrate levels in waters before they are discharged. This should have been in place by 31 December 1998 at the latest.

The Court ruled that some 114 settlements in Flanders, 60 in Wallonia and the agglomeration of Brussels-Capital did not collect and/or treat in a satisfactory manner part or all of the urban waste water they generated. Despite efforts undertaken by the three Belgian regions, 40 agglomerations remain non-compliant: 7 in Flanders, 32 in Wallonia and the agglomeration of Brussels-Capital. In addition, full compliance is not expected before the end of 2013 – more than nine years after the initial Court ruling.

The Commission has therefore decided to bring legal action against Belgium for non-compliance with the Court's judgment and ask for a lump-sum fine of over €15 million and a daily penalty payment of nearly €62000 as long as the infringement persists after the second Court ruling. To calculate the level of fine proposed to the Court, the Commission takes into consideration the seriousness of the infringement and the Member State's ability to pay.

Fresh warning for Luxembourg over non-compliance with Court judgment

Luxembourg was condemned by the ECJ in November 2006 for incorrect application of the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive regarding discharges into sensitive water bodies.

Luxembourg has designated its whole territory as a "sensitive area" and initially chose to comply with its obligations by aiming for an overall reduction of 75% of nitrogen and phosphorous from all treatment plants (an alternative compliance route proposed by the Directive). Following the Court ruling, Luxembourg decided to comply with the Directive by imposing the more stringent treatment required for agglomerations of more than 10,000 people.

As nine agglomerations were still not compliant in 2007, a final warning was sent to Luxembourg. Although progress has been made and four of the nine are expected to become compliant in the short term, another five agglomerations are not expected to meet EU standards before 2012/2013.

The Commission has therefore decided to send Luxembourg a fresh warning that further Court action, with the possibility of fines, will be taken if it does not comply rapidly with the first ECJ judgment.

The Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive

Towns and cities across the European Union are required to collect and treat their urban waste water under the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive.

Untreated waste water can be contaminated with harmful bacteria and viruses and thus presents 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 other life, a process known as eutrophication.

The main type of waste water treatment envisaged by the directive is biological or 'secondary' treatment. However, where agglomerations of over 10,000 inhabitants discharge into water bodies designated as sensitive, more stringent treatment is also needed. Such treatment was required to be in place by 31 December 1998. For agglomerations of more than 15,000 inhabitants not discharging into sensitive areas, the deadline for secondary treatment infrastructure was 31 December 2000. In smaller agglomerations the deadline for compliance was 31 December 2005.

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