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Brussels, 6 April 2011

Environment: Commission urges Belgium to comply with EU law on urban waste water

The European Commission is urging Belgium to ensure that waste water from small towns is properly treated. The lack of sufficient collection and treatment systems that should be in place since 2005 poses risks to human health and to the marine environment. Slow progress by Belgium has led the Commission, on the recommendation of Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik, to send a reasoned opinion under ongoing infringement proceedings. If Belgium fails to comply within two months, the Commission could refer the case to the EU Court of Justice.

Under EU legislation on urban waste water treatment, small agglomerations (towns and settlements which generate a pollution charge equivalent to 2,000 - 10,000 habitants) are required to have adequate systems for collecting and treating their waste water by 2005. Member States must also ensure that water entering collection systems undergoes a "secondary" treatment to remove pollutants before they are discharged into the sea or freshwater. In Belgium, however, 67 small towns in the Flemish and Walloon regions are still not connected to a suitable sewage system and 116 small towns in these regions lack secondary treatment facilities.

Both the Flanders and Walloon regions have made progress and have set aside funds to address the situation, but more action is needed so the Commission is sending a reasoned opinion. Belgium has two months to comply. If it fails to take the necessary measures to correctly apply the legislation, the case may be referred to the EU Court of Justice.

This case is complementary to another Belgian case concerning large towns (= over 10,000 inhabitants), which were the subject of a second court ruling request by the Commission in June 2010 (see IP/10/835). Large towns and cities had deadlines of 1998 and 2000 for applying the EU rules.

Urban waste water treatment

Agglomerations (towns, cities, settlements) 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 Directive requires Member States to ensure that collecting systems are provided for smaller agglomerations which generate waste water equivalent to between 2,000 and 15,000 inhabitants by 2005.

More details on the Urban Wastewater Treatment directive:

For current statistics on infringements in general, see:

See also MEMO/11/220

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