UK Infringement on Bathing Waters

The story of our work with the Urban Waste Water Directive

The Urban Waste Water Directive (UWWD) 91/271/EEC compliance deadline came into force for inland cities and major town’s sewage outfall discharges to rivers and estuaries on 31st December 1998. For the major marine sewage discharges, i.e. the outfalls to the sea, the deadline was 31st December 2000. The UWWD demands that to protect public health and the environment no sewage sludge must enter the water (i.e. primary treatment to remove the solids), secondary treatment (aeration to further destroy pathogens as a minimum, and that tertiary treatment (UV irradiation and/or nutrient stripping) must be provided in environmentally sensitive areas.

There was little doubt but that this would make an amazing improvement in the faecal pollution level of our seaside bathing waters, reducing sewage borne pathogens down to between 2% and 5% of the current levels found at most of our resorts. So, has the United Kingdom now complied with this Directive? Sadly, no ! As with all its previous evasions to bring our bathing waters into compliance with essential European Directives, it has not! The evidence for failure came in a 19th October 1999 letter to James Gray MP from Chris Mullin, Under Secretary of State for the Environment, who identified the Government’s objective, that: –

“… secondary treatment should be installed as soon as possible for all significant coastal sewage discharges … and whenever possible to meet the initial deadlines set by Article 4 of the Directive”.

A list of the relevant discharges and the completion dates for each outfall was attached that showed that many would not meet the deadline of 31st December 2000. Apparently this postponement was agreed between the DETR, the EA, OFWAT and the Water Companies, but decidedly was NOT agreed to by the EC. Here is that list at that time: –

Discharge Area Current Treatment Completion Date
Caister/Great Yarmouth None (screened only) 31st December 2001
Clacton None (screened only) 31st December 2001
Cromer/Sheringham Primary Only 31st December 2001
Ingoldmells None (screened only) 31st December 2001
Jaywick None (screened only) 31st December 2001
Lowestoft None (screened only) 31st December 2001
Mundesley None (screened only) 31st December 2001
Meols/North Wirral None (screened only) 30th September 2001
Whitehaven/Workington None (screened only) 30th November 2001
Amble Crude Sewage 30th June 2001
Cambois None (screened only) 30th April 2001
Newbiggin None (screened only) 31st May 2001
Seaham None (screened only) 30th June 2001
Camborne None (screened only) 31st December 2001
Bideford/Cornborough (1) No current discharge 31st December 2001
Torbay/Sharkham (2) Crude Sewage 30th April 2002
Folkestone/Dover None (screened only) 1st October 2002
Eastbourne 1d 1st October 2002
Hastings None (screened only) 1st July 2003
Hythe 1d 31st March 2001
Margate/Broadstairs None (screened only) 31st December 2003
Brighton/Portobello None (screened only) 31st December 2003
Sandown/Ventnor None (screened only) 1st April 2002
Shoreham 1d 1st October 2001
Swalecliffe 1d 31st March 2001
Worthing 1d 1st October 2001

Note: At Bideford there was no current discharge, but four discharges, three to the Taw-Torridge Estuary and one to Bideford Bay, currently untreated or just primary treated were to be treated and the outflow diverted to Bideford. A new discharge of treated sewage at Sharkham would take the current crude sewage from the Torbay area.

By now a number of these untreated discharges should have treatment. These include Hendon, Horden, Seaton Carew, Bude, Dawlish, Penzance and St.Ives, Sidmouth, Teignmouth, Bognor and Littlehampton, Seaford and Newhaven, Bridport, Bristol and Avonmouth, Kingston, Minehead, Portishead, Swanage, Weymouth, Bridlington, Filey, Hedon, Hull, Scarborough and Whitby. The completion dates of these were all by or before 31st December 2000.

Feedback is invited from readers as to progress on these schemes due for completion to help produce early action and correction. If they can report the status of any of the above outfalls it would be appreciated. If they find that untreated sewage is still emanating from their local outfall(s) they should report this to the Environmental Agency, the local press and to their MP, with a copy to MARINET, and make a formal complaint to: –

  • Bert Van Maele, B1
  • Directorate-General Environment,
  • ENV.D.2,
  • Rue de la Loi 200,
  • B-1049 Bruxelles,

But some of our most populated resorts, Hastings, Margate and Brighton, etc. still awaited action. In view of the failure of the UK to meet the treatment deadline required by the UWWD and the consequence in subjecting people to major pathogen polluted bathing resorts for yet another summer holiday season, the North Sea Action Group (NSAG) wrote with concern to DG-XI, legal side of the environmental branch of the EC, in January 2001.

Sybille Gross of DG-XI responded saying “With regard to the failure of the UK to meet the Urban Waste Water Directive (UWWD), we have already made clear to the UK that we do not share their opinion that the withdrawal of HNDA” [High Natural Dispersion Areas, areas of the sea where the UK claimed that secondary treatment would occur naturally] “status allows an extension of the deadline. In any case, any further information you have on this to feed in would of course be welcome, especially where this information can link outfalls to particular agglomerations of the size relevant to the 2000 deadline. If you have this sort of information and wish to send it in as a formal complaint then let me know.”

The NSAG replied to Sybille Gross, pointing out that whilst we had information on the agglomerations of many of these resorts that failed to meet the December 2000 deadline, we did not have this for all, as those we had were several years old and possibly outdated. Many of the discharge levels would have risen since because of growing populations and junctioning of outfalls, so a topical current understanding of these levels was required. It could prove difficult to have access to this information.

NSAG further wrote:-
“I note that the UWWD requires all discharges (inland, estuarial and coastal) with a pe [population equivalent, the level of sewage discharge] of above 15,000 to provide secondary treatment by 31st December 2000 and those between 10,000 and 15,000 by 31st December 2005. The UK Government commitment is set out in the letter that I sent to you from Minister Chris Mullin MP and in the relevant section from the DETR Guidance to the Director General of Water Services dated September 1998, published under the title ‘Raising the Quality’ with copies available from Eland House, Bressenden Place, London SW1E 5DU, telephone 0171-890 3000. The UK has given a commitment to provide secondary treatment for all ‘significant’ discharges to coastal waters, and interprets the meaning of ‘significant’ as discharges serving a pe of more than 10,000. In the letter from Chris Mullin that you have with the listing and dates of intended completion to secondary treatment, it is stated that all these discharges are ‘significant’.

“You will note that the UK definition of ‘significant’ falls in between the UWWT (Urban Waste Water Treatment) Directive requirement of secondary treatment for all discharges of a pe of above 15,000 by 31st December 2000 and the requirements of secondary treatment for all discharges of a pe of between 10,000 and 15,000 by 31st December 2005. There is no clarification in Chris Mullin’s letter nor the DETR Guidance Note as to which category the listed UK discharges fall into.

“In my personal opinion and that of my co-worker Stephen Eades of MARINET this is a typical trick on the part of the UK Government designed to confuse and thus avoid its legal obligations. We would wish to present this to you as being a ‘spoiling tactic’ that the UK Government has intended it to be, as were it not so the UK Government would not have engaged in this obfuscation. Note also that with regard to discharges of a pe between 2,000 and 10,000 there is no commitment given by Chris Mullin or the Guidance note. The UWWT Directive does however require that these discharges meet all relevant EU legislation by 31st December 2005, e.g. BWD and Shellfish Directive.

“We hope that this assists you. Although the legal definitions are clear, it is not a simple picture. To help inform and fully clarify, may we propose that you address the following two questions to the UK Government.

(a) Would the UK Government please indicate whether any of the coastal discharges on the list detailed in Chris Mullin’s letter have a pe below 15,000?

(b) Would the UK Government please state whether all UK coastal discharges of a pe between 2,000 and 10,000 will meet the requirements of the BWD and the Shellfish Directive by 31st December 2005.

“On the basis of the replies you receive, if they are as I have good reasons to suspect, I will then request of you that you treat my complaint formally.”

In view of the failure of the UK to meet the treatment deadline required by the UWWD and the consequence in subjecting people to pathogen polluted bathing resorts for yet another summer holiday season, the NSAG made a formal complaint to DG-XI of the EC. The Commission eventually responded on 3rd May 2001, saying: –

“Concerning Directive 91/271/EEC on urban waste water treatment, I should inform you that we have just last month issued a reasoned opinion to the UK Government for their failure to fully respect this Directive. The reasoned opinion concerns that failure to designate sufficient sensitive areas (in particular, areas which are actually or potentially eutrophic  and bathing waters) and the failure to meet the collection and treatment deadline of December 1988 for a number of agglomerations. We are currently assessing compliance with the December 2000 deadline for all Member States and will decide whether further action is needed once this assessment is complete. No derogations have been granted to the UK.”

As a consequence of our formal complaint the Government is now at long last facing the threat of European legal action. The Commission is taking Britain to the European Court of Justice, accusing the UK of failing to correctly treat waste water discharged because Britain has failed to introduce rules agreed at EU level into national legislation: Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said “EU environmental legislation has already done a lot to improve the state of the environment in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. But to be fully effective, it must be fully implemented.”

The Commission says such systems as required are still not in place in thirteen cities and towns, nine of these in Northern Ireland (Bangor, Carrickfergus, Coleraine, Londonderry, Larne, Newtownabbey, Omagh, Portrush and Donaghdee) and four in the rest of Britain (Broadstairs, Brighton and Margate plus Lerwick in Scotland. The Commission was acting, particularly over the situation in Northern Ireland.

Britain is now likely to end with some hefty fines, as they did following the NSAG taking the failure of the Blackpool area beaches to EC-DG-XI when those resorts persistently failed the 76/160/EEC Bathing Water Directive. Whilst it is both regrettable and embarrassing that we have to promote our government being taken to the European Court again because of its failure to meet the law, it seems to be the only way to bring about the improvements necessary to improve the ongoing threat to public heath and the environment. Whilst we applaud the decision, we must regret that the situation has to come to this, and share the indignity visited upon our country.

Pat Gowen, 1st August 2005


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