Brussels, 14 July 1999
Drinking Water: Commission acts against Ireland and Portugal
The European Commission has decided further steps in legal actions against Ireland and Portugal for non-respect of the European Union (EU) Drinking Water Directive. As regards Portugal, the decision is to make an application to the European Court of Justice for the non-conformity of the Portuguese implementing legislation. Against Ireland, the decision is to notify a Reasoned Opinion based on two failures to comply with the Directive's standards.
The Drinking Water Directive (Council Directive 80/778/EEC relating to the quality of water intended for human consumption) is a key instrument for safeguarding public health, establishing quality standards that must be respected where water is supplied for consumption. These standards extend to a range of substances, properties and organisms (called parameters).
The Directive fixes standards of zero presence for the organisms, total coliforms and fecal coliforms. While these are not harmful in themselves, they are good indicators of the possible presence of human pathogens such as salmonella, and their presence is effectively a warning of a risk to public health. The Directive therefore stresses the need for strict compliance with the standards.
The compliance deadline for the Directive was 1985.
As regards Portugal, the decision is to make an application to the European Court of Justice for the non-conformity of the Portuguese implementing legislation (which should have been in order by the date of Portugal's accession to the EU, i.e.1 January 1986). In 1998, in response to earlier steps in this infringement procedure, the Portuguese authorities adopted and communicated new legislation. While correcting many of the previous deficiencies, the 1998 legislation failed to fully reflect Annexes I, II and III of the Directive (which define requirements in respect of the parameters covered by the Directive). Hence the Commission's decision to make a Court application.
As regards Ireland, the decision is to notify a Reasoned Opinion based on two failures: first, a widespread non-compliance with the Directive's standards for total coliforms and fecal coliforms, particularly in group water supplies in rural parts of the country; second, the failure of the Irish implementing legislation to require non-compliant group water supplies to be brought into line with the Directive. As regards the first failure, the Irish authorities have been commendably transparent, over a period of 10 years publishing annual drinking water reports highlighting the extent and persistence of the problems(1).
The evidence points to the need for much greater source protection (for example, from septic tanks and agricultural facilities) as well as for better treatment and supply management.
In answer to the Commission's inquiries (stemming from general complaints as well as complaints specific to Ballycroy, County Mayo), the Irish authorities have indicated an intention of strengthening the Irish legislation, and they have also pointed to a rural water programme aimed at supply improvements. While this information is welcome, the absence of new legislation, the seriousness and persistence of the problems, the absence of guarantees that each non-compliant supply will be tackled, and the public health risk not only to regular consumers but to visitors (many of the areas concerned are popular with tourists) made it necessary for the Commission to proceed with its action.
The above decisions reflect the Commission's commitment to ensuring that, in terms of both national legislation and practical application, the requirements of this key Directive are fully met throughout the European Union.
(1) The reports are published by the Irish Environmental Protection Agency