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Brussels, 28 January 2010

Waste water treatment: Commission sends first warnings to Finland and Sweden

The European Commission is sending a first warning letter to Finland and Sweden for failing to put in place the required infrastructure for collecting and treating urban waste water.

Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said: "Untreated urban waste water can endanger the health of European citizens and the environment and this is the case even when the waste water comes from smaller towns. The level of protection agreed at EU level can be reached only if Member States comply with the rules. "

Under the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive, 1 Member States were required to put in place systems for collecting and treating waste water by 31 December 2005 in areas with a population of between 2,000 and 15,000 inhabitants. For agglomerations over 10,000 inhabitants which discharge into areas that are designated as sensitive under the Directive, the corresponding deadline expired on 31 December 1998.

The Commission has been assessing data provided by Member States in relation to these obligations and has found that a number of EU-15 Member States have not fully complied with the treatment requirements. This data shows that 26 areas in Finland and 17 areas in Sweden do not comply.

The Commission is therefore sending a first warning letter to Finland and Sweden for failing to put in place the required infrastructure. This follows similar action taken against Belgium, Luxembourg, Portugal, France and Germany last November (see IP/09/1794 ). These actions follow on from previous cases the Commission has brought to ensure Member States provide collecting systems and treatment for urban waste water from larger agglomerations.

Background: 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.

For a summary of the directive, see

Legal Process

Article 258 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 within a specified period, 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" (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 260 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 rulings by the European Court of Justice see:

1 :

Directive 91/271/EEC

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