European Commission pursues legal action against Finland for breach of environment legislation

The European Commission has decided to pursue infringement proceedings against Finland in two separate cases under EU environment law.

April 7, 2004 -- The European Commission has decided to pursue infringement proceedings against Finland in two separate cases under EU environment law.

Firstly, the Commission will refer Finland to the European Court of Justice over shortcomings in its efforts to halt a decline in the flying squirrel (Pteromys volans) population.

This species is strictly protected under the EU's Habitats Directive and Finland is the only place in the EU where it is found. In another case, the Commission has sent Finland a final written warning for failing to clean urban wastewater as it should do under EU water protection law.

By failing to take all the necessary measures to reduce the excessive presence of nutrients in urban wastewater, Finland contributes to the over-enrichment of its seas. In particular, the Archipelago Sea and Gulf of Finland, which form parts of the Bothnian Sea, as well as the Baltic Sea itself, are adversely affected by excessive discharges of nitrogen.

This nutrient promotes the undesirable proliferation of phytoplankton and harms the local marine ecology. The EU's Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive requires that nitrogen be removed from urban wastewater discharges from towns and cities with populations of more that 10,000.

The Commission considers that Finnish towns which discharge urban wastewater into the Baltic Sea do not adequately extract nitrates from urban wastewater. Similar action is being taken against Sweden.

Commenting on the decisions, Environment Commissioner, Margot Wallström, said: "Finland is the only place in the EU where the flying squirrel is found, so it is important that Finland reviews its procedures in order to ensure the conservation of this endangered species. I also urge the Finnish authorities to upgrade levels of wastewater treatment to help improve water quality in the Baltic region."

Habitats directive

The Habitats Directive(1) provides a comprehensive protection scheme for a range of animals and plants, as well as for a selection of habitat types. The Habitats Directive requires Member States to strictly protect a number of animal species, such as the wolf and the flying squirrel.

Strict protection involves prohibiting all forms of deliberate killing and the deterioration or destruction of breeding sites and resting places. The Directive allows for exceptions - known as derogations - on a number of grounds. These include the killing of certain specimens provided that it is strictly supervised and only limited numbers are killed."

However, these derogations are subject to strict conditions. In particular, there must be no satisfactory alternative, and a derogation must not be detrimental to maintenance of populations of the species at favourable conservation status.

The conservation status of the flying squirrel in Finland is unsatisfactory. The Commission's concerns relate to the way Finnish legislation gives effect to the ban on the deterioration and destruction of breeding and resting places, as well as to the practical arrangements for safeguarding these sites.

More specifically, Finnish legislation limits the scope of the ban to those breeding and resting places that are "clearly perceptible in nature". As the sites are difficult for non-experts to observe, the ban is rendered largely meaningless. In addition, there are shortcomings in the practical arrangements applied to make the ban effective.

This refers in particular to the procedures used to ensure close liaison between nature conservation experts - who know where the squirrel population lives - and the authorities who are responsible for the forestry and infrastructure operations that can lead to the destruction of the squirrels' breeding and resting places.

Although Finland has indicated its intention to revise its legislation and improve the practical arrangements, the promised measures have still not been adopted and notified to the Commission.

Urban wastewater treatment directive

The Directive(2) addresses nutrient-based, bacterial and viral pollution caused by urban waste water. Urban waste water that discharges excessive levels of nutrients (in particular, phosphorous and nitrogen) into rivers and seas causes "eutrophication."

This occurs when there is a sharp increase of photosynthetic organisms - including algae - in the water. This leads to a lowering of oxygen levels (as microbiological organisms degrade the dead algae and other organic material) and to other negative ecological effects. The end result is an imbalance in the organisms present in water and a reduction in water quality.

This can drastically change the ecosystem of a lake or sea. It may even lead to the death of large numbers of fish. By introducing potentially harmful bacteria and viruses, the discharges also pose human health risks in waters that are used for bathing or shellfish culture.

The Directive requires that towns and cities meet minimum waste water collection and treatment standards within deadlines fixed by the Directive. These deadlines are fixed according to the sensitivity of the receiving waters and to the size of the affected urban population.

The Directive required Member States to have identified sensitive areas by 31 December 1993. Strict standards for the discharging of waste water directly from towns and cities above a population of 10,000 into sensitive areas or their catchment areas should have been achieved by 31 December 1998. This deadline also applies to the extraction of the nutrients that contribute to eutrophication.

Legal process

Article 226 of the Treaty gives the Commission powers to take legal action against a Member State that is not respecting its obligations.

If the Commission considers that there may be an infringement of EU law that warrants the opening of an infringement procedure, it addresses a "Letter of Formal Notice" (first written warning) to the Member State concerned, requesting it to submit its observations by a specified date, usually two months.

In the light of the reply or absence of a reply from the Member State concerned, the Commission may decide to address a "Reasoned Opinion" (final written warning) to the Member State. This clearly and definitively sets out the reasons why it considers there to have been an infringement of EU law and calls upon the Member State to comply within a specified period, usually two months.

If the Member State fails to comply with the Reasoned Opinion, the Commission may decide to bring the case before the Court of Justice.

Article 228 of the Treaty gives the Commission power to act against a Member State that does not comply with a previous judgement of the European Court of Justice. The article also allows the Commission to ask the Court to impose a financial penalty on the Member State concerned.

For current statistics on infringements in general see:

http://europa.eu.int

Notes:

(1) Council Directive 92/43/EEC on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild flora and fauna

(2) Council Directive 91/271/EEC concerning urban waste water treatment

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