EU Commission takes UK to court over sewer overflows
24 November 2009
At the beginning of October the European Commission announced that it was taking the UK to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) on the grounds that current waste water collection and treatment systems in London and Whitburn, Sunderland are inadequate and fail to comply with the 1991 EU Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive.
Sewage spills from combined sewer overflows (CSOs) are nothing new, however, this time the Commission has taken action after becoming concerned that untreated waste water is spilling into the Thames and North Sea in excessive quantities and more frequently than current EU guidelines permit. The Commission is also concerned that treatment capacity for the waste waters collected in London is in need of improvement.
The heavy summer rainstorms of 2009 led to repeated spills from CSOs, the worst of which saw over 20,000 tonnes of sewage flowing into the river Thames from Thames Water's Mogden sewage treatment works in Isleworth. In Whitburn the rain overloaded the current system to such an extent that manhole covers were lifted causing untreated sewage to run across the promenade, beach and into the sea. London's ageing Victorian sewers have long been the source of controversy, with discharges occurring after as little as 2mm of rain and as frequently as once a week. The ambitious 'Tideway Tunnels' solution, which sees 2 tunnels dug deep under London at an estimated cost of nearly £2 billion, is an attempt to solve the problem.
The 1991 Directive was implemented in the UK by the Urban Waste Water Treatment Regulations 1994 (as amended). The Directive required member states to put in place adequate waste water collection systems and treatment facilities for large towns and cities by the end of 2000. Waste water collected is required to undergo treatment before being released. The Directive does authorise the spillage of waste water in certain situations such as unusually high rainfall, but the Commission maintains that the spills in London and Whitburn were excessive and go beyond what is permitted.
DEFRA has declined to comment on the case but maintains that the UK has invested heavily in improving CSO's since the Directive came into force. Despite this the proceedings are likely to result in increased pressure on water companies to invest in water collection and treatment infrastructure with a corresponding rise in customer bills.