Commission takes action against nine countries for breaking water laws

The European Commission has announced that it is taking legal action against Portugal, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Belgium, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, France and Greece for failing to comply with a variety of water-related directives. France has also been condemned by the European Court of Justice this week for failing to identify waters at risk of eutrophication.

The directives in question are those relating to bathing water, drinking water, urban wastewater, nitrates, and discharges of dangerous substances.

“The European Commission must respond to society’s special concern for a high level of water protection by ensuring that member states comply with the range of EU laws that they have adopted for this purpose,” said European Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström. “It is essential that all member states adhere fully to these laws if we are to ensure the sustainable management of water quality in Europe.”


The Commission is sending a second written warning to Portugal for its failure to comply with a July 2000 ruling by the European Court of Justice for not adopting pollution reduction programmes for 99 dangerous substances under the Dangerous Substances Directive. Although the country has carried out monitoring, it has not provided details of its programmes.

Portugal comes in for further attention from the Commission for insufficiently designating areas for protection under the Nitrates Directive. For this it is being referred to the Court of Justice. To date, Portugal has only designated three small nitrate vulnerable zones, despite the fact that the Commission has identified up to 22 within the country, some very large. Portugal will also receive a second written warning for failing to ensure that there are nitrate reduction programmes that comply with the directive within the three areas that have been designated.

Finally, the Commission has also sent a second written warning regarding widespread breaches of the Drinking Water Directive – particularly in relation to faecal coliforms, total coliforms and nitrates.


The Commission has also referred Spain to the Court of Justice. The country has failed on three environmental laws, the Drinking Water, Bathing Water, and Urban Wastewater Treatment Directives. The Baix Ter aquifer in Catalonia has been the subject of an investigation into pollution problems, which revealed that 25% of drinking water samples from the aquifer exceeded the Drinking Water Directives maximum limit for nitrates. The breach is possibly linked to inadequate control of intensive pig farming in the area.

Meanwhile, several beaches in Ria de Vigo in Galicia have been found to have very high levels of faecal coliforms, due to failure to adequately upgrade wastewater treatment in the area.

Finally, the Commission has also sent Spain a first written warning for failing to provide sufficient information on how the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive is being implemented.


Italy has failed to adopt a pollution action programme, to carry out monitoring, and to report to the Commission under the Nitrates Directive. The Court of Justice ruled against Italy on this issue in November last year, but since then the situation has not been rectified. The Commission has completed the circle by deciding to send a first written warning for the country’s failure to comply with the judgement.


Sweden has also sinned in respect to the Nitrates Directive. The Commission has sent the country a second written warning for failing to designate agricultural areas close to certain important lakes, namely Vanern, Vattern, Hjalmaren and Malaren.

The Commission has also sent Sweden a second written warning for failing to provide a report on how the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive has been implemented.

France and Greece

A first written warning has been sent to both France and Greece, also for failing to inform the Commission on how the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive has been implemented.

French authorities have also been in court this week. The European Court of Justice has ruled that France has failed in its obligations under the Nitrates Directive for using a classification of eutrophication that is too restrictive, and has ordered the country to pay costs.

France has refused to identify flowing brackish waters as nitrate sensitive. For example, under France’s definition, the Seine is not considered eutrophic because it is not experiencing eutrophication itself. However, the river could be transporting as much as 100,000 tonnes of nitrogen into the English Channel. This is against a background of the fact that the Channel and the North Sea receive a total of only 400,000 tonnes of nitrogen per year.

Belgium, Luxembourg and The Netherlands

The Commission has sent Belgium a second written warning for failing to comply with a 1999 ruling by the European Court of Justice under the Dangerous Substances Directive. Luxembourg and The Netherlands are in a similar situation, following rulings in 1998 and 2001 respectively.

None of the three countries have adopted programmes to reduce pollution for 99 dangerous substances, and currently in Belgium, complete programmes are still lacking from the Brussels and Wallonia regions. Although Luxembourg and The Netherlands have prepared measures, neither have provided the Commission with the details.

As with France, Greece, Sweden and Spain, Belgium has also been sent a first written warning for failure to provide information on the implementation of the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive.

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