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European Commission

Press release

Brussels, 21 June 2012

Environment: Commission urges Portugal to comply with EU law on waste water and water pollution

Portugal is failing to provide sufficient treatment for waste water produced in small urban agglomerations and is not complying with EU cleanliness standards for shellfish waters. On the recommendation of Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik, the Commission is sending reasoned opinions to ask Portugal to comply with EU law in both areas. If Portugal fails to do so within two months, the Commission may refer both cases to the EU Court of Justice.

The Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive requires waste water to be collected and treated in any area that generates the water pollution equivalent of a settlement of above 2000 people. Implementation was to be achieved by 2006. According to article 4 of the Directive, urban waste water should undergo secondary biological or equivalent treatment before entering collecting systems and these discharges should also satisfy certain requirements. By 2007 Portugal still had 186 small agglomerations with water systems giving inadequate secondary treatment, and a further 8 smaller agglomerations with inappropriate systems under article 3. While Portugal made and notified improvements to the Commission following a letter of formal notice in 2009, 77 agglomerations still have inadequate secondary treatment. This situation has prompted a reasoned opinion from the Commission.

The EU Directive on shellfish water quality aims to protect and improve shellfish waters in order to support shellfish life and growth. It requires Member States to adopt measures to reduce pollution and ensure water quality so that bivalves can be directly caught and consumed without any further treatment. Monitoring tests carried out on shellfish waters in Portugal's Ria Formosa indicate that while the levels of pollution are low enough to allow shellfish to be either directly consumed or safely eaten once subjected to a purification process prior to marketing, the specific water pollution conformity levels required by the Shellfish Directive have not yet been achieved in the whole Ria area.

In response to the Commission's concerns, Portugal supplied information about projects set up to ensure the sustainable development of the Ria. The Commission has found that the measures taken by these projects are mainly intended to develop economic activity and shellfish commercialisation, and not specifically to bring the shellfish water quality up to the required standard. Portugal must also incorporate measures to ensure the overall good ecological status of the Ria, as part of the Ria Formosa river basin management plan required by the Water Framework Directive . A reasoned opinion is therefore being sent.


The Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive requires Member States to ensure that agglomerations (towns, cities and settlements) properly collect and treat their urban waste water. There are almost 23,000 such areas in the EU, producing a total waste water pollution load of about 550 million population equivalent. 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 Shellfish Waters Directive is designed to protect the aquatic habitat of bivalve and gastropod molluscs, including oysters, mussels, cockles, scallops and clams. The Directive requires Member States to designate waters that need protection in order to support shellfish life and growth and to put in place Pollution Reduction Programmes, which establish a programme of measures to reduce pollution pressures in each designated area. The Directive sets physical, chemical and microbiological water quality requirements, some of which are mandatory while others are ‘guideline’ standard.

The Water Framework Directive, which came into force in 2000, provides a framework for integrated water management in river basin districts across the European Union. It obliges Member States to protect and restore all bodies of ground water and surface water (rivers, lakes, transitional and coastal water) to achieve "good status" by 2015 at the latest. Instead of administrative or political boundaries, the natural geographical and hydrological units of river basins are used as the best basis from which to manage water systems. For each river basin district a "river basin management plan" is established and updated every six years.

Further information

For current statistics on infringements in general:

See also:


Contacts :

Joe Hennon (+32 2 295 35 93)

Monica Westeren (+32 2 299 18 30)

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