(CN) - Wastewater-handling facilities in Britain violate European law and must be upgraded regardless of cost, the Court of Justice ruled Thursday.
Regulators from the European Commission first began investigating U.K. wastewater-collecting services in 2003 after receiving complaints about excessive storm water overflows in Whitburn, a coastal community near the North Sea. Authorities informed the commission that improvements to the pumping station would be completed by 2004.
In 2005, the commission informed the U.K. that London-area wastewater facilities dumped untreated storm water into the River Thames even in periods of moderate rainfall. Authorities there agreed there were problems with the system that handled domestic, industrial and storm discharges, and announced the launch of the Thames Tideway Strategic Study to assess the environmental impact of the discharges.
Dissatisfied with the British response to its complaints, the commission initiated civil proceedings against the U.K. a year later.
Officials cited problems at nine treatment facilities in the greater London area, but Britain insisted that the facilities serving Whitburn and Sutherland complied with EU law.
In subsequent meetings in 2007, U.K. authorities acknowledged the need to upgrade three London-area plants but still said they complied with EU laws. Britain also told regulators that it would mark completion of the Thames study by building an 18-mile tunnel along the length of the river and a separate tunnel for its tributary, the River Lee. It said this project would be completed by 2020.
By 2009, the commission had had enough. In addition to informing the U.K of its obligation to control the release of urban wastewater through storm water overflows, it maintained that the Whitburn plant upgrades were inadequate. The cmmission gave U.K authorities two months to comply with EU wastewater laws.
According to the Luxembourg court, the disagreement between turns on interpretation of the EU's wastewater discharge law. The commission contends that member states must maintain systems that consider climatic conditions, seasonal variations, nonresidential populations, tourists and seasonal economic activities. In the U.K.'s view, member states are best able to determine which urban wastewater should be collected and treated to mitigate environmental impact.
The high court sided with its regulators.
"The objective pursued by [the wastewater law] goes beyond the mere protection of aquatic ecosystems and seeks to conserve man, fauna, flora, soil, water, air and landscapes from any significant adverse effects of the accelerated growth of algae and higher forms of plant life that results from discharges of urban waste water. The concepts of 'sufficient performance.' ... 'unusually heavy rainfall,' and 'best technical knowledge not entailing excessive costs' ... should be interpreted in the light of that objective," the court wrote.
"The court has already found a failure to fulfill obligations in cases where the collection or treatment rate for urban waste water amounted to 80% or even 90% of the existing load. ... Indeed, given the objective pursued by [the directive], failure to treat urban waste water cannot be accepted under usual climatic and seasonal conditions, as otherwise [the directive] would be rendered meaningless. Thus, it is established that, in order to meet the objective of protecting the environment, the concept of 'sufficient performance', although not defined numerically, must be understood as meaning that, under usual climatic conditions and account being taken of seasonal variations, all urban waste water must be collected and treated."
The court had little patience for Britain's argument that the law prohibits member states from suffering disproportionate costs to comply with the directive. Authorities failed to provide any cost estimates for improving the Whitburn system and have already started work on London improvements, according to the ruling.
"Thus, technological solutions to the problem of the collecting system for London exist and their costs cannot be regarded as disproportionate given that the United Kingdom has already taken the decision to implement them," the court concluded.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.