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European Commission - Press release

Environment: Commission takes Spain to Court over urban waste water and river basin plans

Brussels, 16 June - The European Commission is referring Spain to the EU Court of Justice for breaching two pieces of EU environment legislation. In the first case, Spain is failing to ensure that waste water from agglomerations with more than 10,000 inhabitants that discharge into sensitive areas is properly treated. The lack of adequate treatment systems, which should have been in place since 1998, poses risks to human health, to inland waters and the marine environment. Slow progress by Spain has led the Commission, on the recommendation of Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik, to refer the case to the EU Court of Justice. In the second case, Spain has failed to submit its plans for managing river basins to the Commission. These plans, due to be adopted by 22 December 2009 at the latest, are essential for achieving the EU's objective of 'good status' for European waters by 2015. So far only one plan has been adopted in Spain, and the Commission is therefore taking Spain to the EU Court of Justice.

Urban waste water

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 ensure that water entering collection systems undergoes a treatment that meets the most stringent quality standards (known as tertiary treatment) to remove nutrients before they are discharged into environmentally sensitive areas.

In Spain, at least 39 towns of that size across the country are discharging urban waste water into environmentally sensitive or potentially sensitive areas without appropriate treatment. The Commission sent a reasoned opinion on 1 December 2008 urging Spain to comply with the requirements of the Directive (see IP/08/1802). Since then, Spain has made progress, but 13 years after the deadline, overall compliance is still poor. The Commission has therefore decided to refer the case to the EU Court of Justice.

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.

More follows

River basin management plans

The EU Water Framework Directive requires Member States to publish a management plan for each river district by 22 December 2009 at the latest. Spain is required to adopt 25 plans in total, but has so far only adopted and communicated one (the Plan de gestión del Distrito de Cuenca Fluvial de Cataluña).

Despite earlier warnings (see IP/11/91), as the plans have still not been adopted almost a year and a half after the deadline, the Commission has decided to refer Spain to the EU Court of Justice.

The delay in submitting river basin plans puts the achievement of the Water Framework Directive's objective – to achieve good ecological and chemical status by 2015– at risk. According to the classification laid down in the Directive, "good status" is defined as a slight deviation from reference standards that reflect no or very low human pressure on the abundance of aquatic flora and fauna, the availability of nutrients, levels of salinity and temperature and the presence of chemical pollutants of high concern. River basin management plans give a comprehensive overview of the main issues for each river basin district and should include the specific measures needed to achieve set environmental quality objectives.

In April 2011 the Commission decided to take four other Member States (Belgium, Denmark, Greece and Portugal) to Court for failing to adopt their river basin management plans (see IP/11/438).

Further Information

More details on the Urban Waste-water Treatment Directive:

For further information on the consultation and adoption status of river basin management plans, visit:

More details on water policy:

For current statistics on infringements in general, see:

See also MEMO/11/408

Contacts :

Joe Hennon (+32 2 295 35 93)

Monica Westeren (+32 2 295 06 68)

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