Belgium condemned over Brussels' sewage

European Commission wins first round of Brussels v Brussels after warning of renewed action

Belgium was condemned by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) today for failing to prepare adequate plans for treating sewage in Brussels - its capital city and the unofficial capital of the EU. The judgement comes just one day after the European Commission warned that it might launch a second court action against Belgium over the same failure (ENDS Daily 5 July).

Under the 1991 urban waste water treatment directive, Belgium should have installed sewage treatment facilities in every settlement with over 10,000 inhabitants by 1998. Along with Flanders and Wallonia, the Brussels region transposed the directive in 1994. But in 1996 it told the Commission that sewage treatment facilities could not be in place before 2003 and asked for an extension to the deadline.

Unsatisfied with Brussels' arguments, the Commission launched court action last year (ENDS Daily 21 April 1999). The Belgian government pleaded "exceptional circumstances" due to a context of institutional reforms necessary to "preserve the unity of the state," but this argument was rejected by the court.

Although today's judgement is embarrassing for Belgium, the threatened new court action would be more "substantive," a Commission official told ENDS Daily today. Because it was based on a formal warning sent before the 1998 deadline had passed, the case that has just closed could be based only on a complaint that Brussels might fail to meet it. Any new action would charge Belgium with failing to install sewage treatment over 18 months after the deadline, the official said.

All Brussels' sewage is discharged directly into the Senne river, which has been culverted in the city centre to avoid the smell. Last year a Commission report said the Senne downstream of the Belgian capital was "more an open sewer than a river" (ENDS Daily 26 January 1999). Italy also faces European Commission action over a similar failure to treat sewage in Milan (ENDS Daily 6 January).

Follow Up:
European Court of Justice, tel: +352 43031. See also the full judgement in case C-236/99 here.

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