Brussels, 21 June 2012
Environment: Italy in Court over urban waste water treatment failings
The European Commission is taking Italy to court for its failure 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 collection and treatment systems, required by EU legislation since 1998, poses risks to human health and to inland waters and the marine environment. Despite good progress since a reasoned opinion on this matter in 2011, the significant shortcomings that remain have led the Commission, on the recommendation of Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik, to 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.
Italy has lagged behind in implementing the legislation. In 2011 the Commission sent a reasoned opinion as over 143 towns across the country were still not connected to a suitable sewage system and/or lacked secondary treatment facilities or had insufficient capacity. While considerable progress has been made, 14 years after the original deadline expired at least 50 agglomerations still present shortcomings, and more work is needed to ensure that urban centres that are not yet compliant achieve the standards required to protect citizens and the environment. The Commission has therefore decided to refer the case to the EU Court of Justice.
This is Italy's second court referral for urban waste water treatment. In a separate case in May 2010 concerning larger towns (over 15.000 inhabitants) discharging into non-sensitive areas, which should have complied with the urban waste water treatment legislation by 2000, Italy has already been referred to the EU Court of Justice (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.
More details on the Urban Waste-water Treatment Directive:
For current statistics on infringements in general, see: