UK Faces Legal Action Over Poor Waste Water Collection And Treatment

Court of Justice of the EU

The European Commission is referring the UK to Court over its failure to ensure that urban waste water is adequately treated in 17 agglomerations. 

In the EU, member states need adequate collection and treatment systems for urban waste water, as untreated water poses risks to human health, inland waters and the marine environment.

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, presenting a risk to human health. It also contains nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous which can damage freshwaters and the marine environment, promoting excessive algae growth that chokes other living organisms, a process known as eutrophication.

The case also concerns excessive spills from storm water overflows in collecting systems serving the agglomerations of Llanelli and Gowerton. Innovative and environmentally positive sustainable urban drainage solutions are now being implemented to improve the situation

In four of the agglomerations in question (Banchory, Stranraer, Ballycastle, and Clacton), treatment is inadequate, and one agglomeration, Gibraltar (a British Overseas Territory) has no treatment plant at all.

In ten other agglomerations, where the waste water discharges into sensitive areas such as freshwaters and estuaries, the existing treatment fails to meet the more stringent standards required for such areas.

The areas concerned are Lidsey, Tiverton, Durham (Barkers Haugh), Chester-le-Street, Winchester Central and South (Morestead), Islip, Broughton Astley, Chilton (also known as Windlestone), Witham and Chelmsford.

EU legislation on urban waste water treatment dates back to 1991, with long lead times for the implementation deadlines. Member states had until the end of 1998 to ensure stringent treatment for wastewater from agglomerations discharging into sensitive areas.

They had until the end of 2000 to ensure appropriate treatment from large agglomerations discharging into undesignated waters and until the end of 2005 for discharges from medium-sized agglomerations and discharges to freshwater and estuaries from small agglomerations.

The case also concerns excessive spills from storm water overflows in collecting systems serving the agglomerations of Llanelli and Gowerton. Innovative and environmentally positive sustainable urban drainage solutions are now being implemented to improve the situation.

However the current spill rates are still too high and compliance is not foreseen before 2020. The deadline for having in place compliant collecting systems for these agglomerations was end 2000.

The Commission is referring the case to the Court of Justice of the EU.

Power Plant Emissions

The European Commission is also referring the UK to Court due to the absence of a reduction in emissions by the Aberthaw coal-fired power station in Wales.

Emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) at the power station were found to exceed the permissible limits.

Under EU legislation on emissions from large combustion plants, Member States had until 1 January 2008 to reduce emissions of a number of pollutants from power plants.

The Aberthaw power plant does not meet the requirement of the Directive, as it currently operates under a permit which sets a NOx emission limit of 1200 mg/Nm3, as opposed to the legally applicable 500 mg/Nm3 limit set in the Directive. The Commission first raised its concerns in a letter of formal notice in June 2013, followed by a reasoned opinion in October 2014.

The Commission takes note that the UK has been working constructively on this issue, with the aim of finding a solution.

In this context, the Commission welcomes more recent indications from the UK authorities that investments will be made to upgrade the plant, but at present the plant continues to operate under a permit, which allows it to emit high levels of the toxic gas NOx. The Commission is therefore referring this case to Court.


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