Commission takes Portugal to Court over waste water treatment

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The European Commission is taking Portugal to Court for its failure to ensure that waste water from small agglomerations is properly treated. The lack of adequate collection and treatment systems, required by EU legislation for small agglomerations since 2005, poses risks to human health and to inland waters and the marine environment. Despite good progress since the Commission sent a 'reasoned opinion' to Portugal on this matter in 2009, the current significant shortcomings have led the Commission, on the recommendation of Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik, to refer the case to the Court of Justice of the European Union.

Under EU legislation on urban waste water treatment dating back to 1991, small agglomerations (i.e. typically between 2000 and 15000 inhabitants) should have had systems for collecting and treating their waste water in place by 2005 at the latest. Member States must also ensure that water entering collection systems undergoes a "secondary" treatment to remove pollutants before being discharged either to the sea or to inland water. Treatment plants must in addition be able to cope with seasonal variations in the volume of waste water.

Portugal has lagged behind in implementing the legislation. In 2009 the Commission sent a reasoned opinion relating to eight towns across the country, which were still not connected to a suitable sewage system, and to 186 towns which lacked secondary treatment facilities or had insufficient capacity. While considerable progress has been made since 2009, the latest information available shows that 52 agglomerations still lack adequate facilities, and in 25 instances there is no date set for full compliance. The Commission has therefore decided to refer the case to the Court of Justice.

This will constitute Portugal's third appearance before the Court on matters related to urban waste water treatment. In both previous instances, referring respectively to waste water discharges into sensitive areas (C-220/10) and into normal areas (C-530/07), the rulings were followed by further letters of formal notice from the Commission, in view of delays in the construction of the treatment plants still needed to achieve the required level of treatment.

Background

The Urban Waste Water 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 various living organisms, a process known as eutrophication.

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