European cities are still discharging raw sewage into environment

The European Commission has launched a series of ‘name-and-shame’ seminars on city sewage throughout the Union in an attempt to turn around major delays by member states in implementing the wastewater directive.

According to the Commission, 37 large cities are still discharging untreated wastewater into the environment, with many others discharging large quantities of inadequately treated effluent, and almost all member states have been very slow in providing the Commission with information on the treatment of city sewage within their countries. The result is degraded habitats, including the eutrophication of the North, Baltic and Adriatic seas. The ‘name, shame, and fame’ seminars are being used as a tool to increase awareness about the effects of poor implementation of the legislation, and will present EU financing of waste water treatment and point to the future of an enlarged Europe.

The directive on wastewater treatment was adopted in 1991, with the aim of protecting the environment from the adverse effects of discharging urban wastewater, including biodegradable wastewater from the food-processing industry. The directive comprises three deadlines, the first of which, on the 31 December 1998, should have seen stringent collection and treatment systems for all conurbations with more than 10,000 inhabitants which were discharging effluent upstream of a sensitive area. By the end of 2000, all member states should have established secondary collection and treatment systems for all conurbations with more than 15,000 inhabitants, and by the end of December 2005, all small agglomerations should have appropriate secondary treatment.

“The environment of the EU would look different if legislation was enforced in member states,” said Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström. “Waste water treatment, for example, makes the difference between good and bad bathing water and thereby directly affects people’s health. Member states are also setting a bad example and sending a deplorable message to the candidate countries, which are being criticised for not transposing EU environmental legislation quickly enough.”

One of the cities singled out for criticism is Brussels which did not have any treatment at all by the end of 1998, and since autumn 2000 only treated one third of wastewater to secondary level, still below the standard demanded by the directive. A second treatment plant which is planned for the city will not become operational before 2004-2005. Ireland also has a poor record on sewage treatment, with neither Dundalk nor Cork having any secondary treatment at the end of 1998. Eutrophication of coastal waters and estuaries near Cork have lead the Commission to recommend that the city of Cork should introduce tertiary treatment of nitrogen and phosphorus. In the UK there are 11 cities with no wastewater treatment, although work on remedying the situation is underway in a number of them.

As well as the lack of co-operation of member states regarding large cities, of the 3,247 agglomerations that should have complied with the 1998 deadline in order to protect sensitive areas, only Denmark and Austria are close to compliance, although Austria’s classification of sensitive areas is not as stringent as that of the Commission. In addition, neither France nor Germany have given any information at all regarding the situation of the treatment of urban wastewater as of the end of 1998.

“This is an unconstructive attitude which is a barrier to transparency and proper information for the public,” said Wallström.

However, according to the Commission, information from the European Environment Agency has shown that where efforts have been made to implement the directive, the result is a significant improvement in the water quality of many European rivers and lakes.

The Commission is encouraging member states to comply with the directive through a number of measures, including with financial aid from the Structural and Cohesion Funds, and a comprehensive discussion on urban water management, with particular regard to the implementation of preventative action. However, it has also been estimated that compliance with the directive for candidate countries would require nearly EUR30 billion (£19 billion), but would result in a 40-50% reduction in nutrient inputs.

“It is important to change behaviour in order to put an end to the policy of ‘putting everything down the drains’ which cannot be justified by the existence of a water-purification station,” said Wallström. “In addition, domestic, urban and industrial water consumers, who in recent years have learnt to sort their waste, should also learn to treat water as a precious commodity.”

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