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Brussels, 19 May 2011

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

The European Commission is asking Italy to ensure proper treatment of waste water from agglomerations with more than 10,000 inhabitants discharged into sensitive areas. The lack of sufficient collection and treatment systems, which should have been in place since 1998, poses risks to human health and to inland waters and the marine environment. Slow progress by Italy has led the Commission, on the recommendation of Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik, to send a reasoned opinion. If Italy 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, agglomerations of more than 10,000 inhabitants are required to have systems for collecting and treating their waste water in place by 1998. Member States must also ensure that water entering collection systems undergoes a "secondary" treatment to remove pollutants before they are discharged into sea or freshwater. Treatment plants must in addition be able to cope with seasonal variations in the load of waste water.

In Italy however, at least 143 towns across the country are still not connected to a suitable sewage system, lack secondary treatment facilities and/or the capacity to manage variations in the waste water load. Italy has made progress but despite earlier warnings, it still fails to comply with the requirements, 13 years after the deadline. The Commission has therefore decided to issue a reasoned opinion. Italy has two months to comply. If it fails to take the necessary measures, the case may be referred to the EU Court of Justice.

This case is complementary to another Italian case concerning larger towns (over 15.000 inhabitants) not discharging into sensitive areas, which should have complied with the urban waste water treatment legislation by 2000, and for which the Commission decided to refer Italy to the EU Court of Justice in May 2010 (see IP/10/528). In addition, investigations are currently ongoing to assess the situation in smaller agglomerations, for which the deadline to comply was 2005.

Urban waste water treatment

The Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive requires Member States to ensure that agglomerations (towns, cities, settlements) properly collect and treat their urban waste water. 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.

Further Information

More details on the Urban Waste-water Treatment Directive:

For current statistics on infringements in general, see:

See also MEMO/11/312

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