Commission urges Sweden to improve its wastewater treatment

The European Commission has sent Sweden a final written warning for failing to clean urban waste water as it should under EU water protection law.

April 19, 2004 -- The European Commission has sent Sweden a final written warning for failing to clean urban waste water as it should under EU water protection law.

By failing to take all the necessary measures to reduce the excessive presence of nutrients in wastewater, Sweden is contributing to the over-enrichment of the Baltic Sea.

The Baltic Sea is 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 than 10,000.

The Commission considers that Sweden is not respecting this obligation for towns located to the North of Norrtälje and in the southern-central part of the country, and is not doing enough to protect water quality in the Baltic. Similar action is being taken against Finland.

Commenting on the decisions, Environment Commissioner, Margot Wallström, said: "The bad state of the Baltic Sea is a well-known fact. By upgrading wastewater treatment in the north and central parts of the country, Sweden can help improve overall water quality in the Baltic."

Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive

The Directive addresses nutrient-based, bacterial and viral pollution caused by urban waste water. Urban waste water which 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. The 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 with a population above 10,000 into sensitive areas, or their catchment areas, should have been achieved by 31 December 1998.

The same deadline 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:

this link.

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

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