Spain has until April 2020 to comply with European legislation on urban wastewater treatment. On 12 February, the European Commission (EC) issued an ultimatum to Spain which has to make a move if it wants to avoid being taken to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) for not meeting these requirements.

Noncompliance going back over 20 years

Nearly three decades ago, in 1991 the European Union (EU) adopted its directive regulating urban wastewater treatment. Member states had 10 years until 2001 to get their municipal facilities into shape.

As the CE noted in its communication, EU member states “must apply secondary treatment on all discharges from agglomerations of more than 2,000 population equivalent and more advanced treatment for agglomerations of more than 10,000 population equivalent located in designated sensitive areas.” Almost thirty years after its enactment and twenty years after the deadline for compliance with the “new” regulation, the EC warned the Spanish government that it is still ignoring it on a “large scale” as up to 133 agglomerations have been identified which are still discharging into normal or sensitive areas (something that runs totally counter to the European directive).

The plan to regulate wastewater treatment in Spain

The EC’s ultimatum comes as no surprise. The first “warning” was given in 2010, when the Commission took Spain to the European courts as it had found that several agglomerations with populations over 15,000 had neither collecting systems nor treatment systems for urban wastewater. In April 2011, the CJEU handed down a ruling confirming the 2010 EC complaint and which would be repeated in 2017 because the country had still not complied with the 2011 ruling. There was one major consequence: in July 2018, Spain was ordered to pay a huge fine (coming to €60,000 a day) for persisting with the breach.

“Despite some progress, Spain is not expected to fully meet its obligations in the near future,” says Brussels in its report. This statement might suggest it is throwing in the towel, yet that is precisely why the EC has sent the reasoned opinion to “speed up” compliance.

The fact is that the calculations are not out of kilter, since the Spanish Ministry for Ecological Transition and Demographic Challenge is working on its DSEAR Plan (Water Treatment, Sanitation, Efficiency, Saving and Reuse) designed to replace the National Water Quality Plan 2007-2015 which had been hampered by the failure of the tiers of government involved to implement its budget. It is expected that the new plan will only be ready by the summer which means the April “deadline” will not be hit. If it does happen a few months later, will 2020 be the year in which this long timeline of grievances comes to an end?
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