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Council adopts position on new rules for more efficient treatment of urban wastewater

  • Council adopts position on new rules for more efficient treatment of urban wastewater

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European Council
The General Secretariat of the Council is a body of staff responsible for assisting the European Council and the Council of the EU. It helps organise and ensure the coherence of the Council's work and the implementation of its 18-month...

Today, the Council reached an agreement (‘general approach’) on a proposal to review the urban wastewater treatment directive. The revised directive is one of the key deliverables under the EU's zero-pollution action plan.

While the current directive has proven highly effective in reducing water pollution and improving the treatment of wastewater discharges over the last three decades, this revision aims to update the directive by extending its scope and aligning it with the European Green Deal’s objectives.

The general approach will serve as a mandate for negotiations with the European Parliament on the final shape of the legislation.

Teresa Ribera Rodríguez, acting Spanish third vice-president of the government and minister for the ecological transition and the demographic challenge, said: "Today we reached an important agreement to improve the already effective collection and treatment of urban wastewater in the EU. It brings us one step closer to the zero-pollution goal that we set for Europe. This sector’s contribution to our climate objectives is crucial and the new rules will further help us protect the environment and the health of our citizens."

Main changes agreed by the Council

The Council’s text strikes a balance between keeping the main ambition of the proposed revision to improve the collection and treatment of urban wastewater and providing flexibility for member states in the implementation of the directive, while ensuring a high level of protection for human health and the environment.

Scope of the directive

The objectives of the directive were extended, as proposed by the Commission, beyond environmental protection, to also include the protection of human health and the reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

To address pollution from small agglomerations, the Council extended the scope of the directive to include all agglomerations of 1 250 population equivalent (p.e.) and above, as opposed to the 2 000 p.e. of the current directive. For the purpose of this directive, population equivalent is a parameter used to define quantities of wastewater in terms of the potential water pollution load caused by one person per day, 'one population equivalent' being the daily organic biodegradable load having a five-day biochemical oxygen demand of 60 g of oxygen per day .

Wastewater collecting systems and management plans

The Council agreed that the obligation to set up urban wastewater collecting systems should be extended to all agglomerations of 1 250 p.e. or more. It also postponed the deadline for compliance with this obligation from 2030 to 2035, with some derogations available for smaller agglomerations and those member states that most recently joined the EU. For instance, member states that joined after 2004 or 2006 may have their deadlines for compliance extended for eight or twelve years, respectively, as they have already had to make more recent significant investments to implement the directive.

If the establishment of a collecting system is not justified, feasible or cost-effective, member states can use individual systems to collect and treat urban wastewater.

The text sets deadlines for member states to establish an integrated urban wastewater management plan covering agglomerations of over 100 000 p.e. by 2035, and agglomerations between 10 000 and 100 000 p.e. by 2040. Such integrated management plans will be reviewed at least every six years.

Wastewater treatments

The Council extended the obligation to apply secondary treatment (i.e., the removal of biodegradable organic matter) to urban wastewater before it is discharged into the environment to all agglomerations of 1 250 p.e. or more by 2035. Derogations apply to smaller agglomerations and member states that have recently joined the EU.

By 2045, Member states will have to ensure the application of tertiary treatment (i.e., the removal of nitrogen and phosphorus) in larger plants of 150 000 p.e. and above. Tertiary treatment will be mandatory in smaller agglomerations in areas at risk of eutrophication. Member states introduced a derogation from this requirement when treated urban wastewater is reused for agricultural irrigation, provided that there are no environmental and sanitary risks. An additional treatment removing a broad spectrum of micropollutants ('quaternary treatment') is to be mandatory for all plants of over 200 000 p.e. by 2045, with intermediate targets in 2035 and 2040.

Extended producer responsibility

To cover the additional costs entailed by quaternary treatment and in line with the ‘polluter pays principle’, producers of pharmaceuticals and cosmetics leading to urban wastewater pollution by micro-pollutants would need to contribute to the costs of this additional treatment, through an extended producer responsibility (EPR) scheme. The Council agreed that EPR should apply to any product placed on the market, in any country and by any means. Exonerations from EPR are not to represent a disproportionate administrative burden for the producer.

Energy neutrality and renewables

Member states agreed that the urban wastewater treatment sector could play a significant role in significantly reducing GHG emissions and helping the EU achieve its climate neutrality objective. They introduced an energy neutrality target, meaning that by 2045 urban wastewater treatment plants will have to produce the energy they consume, with progressive intermediate targets. This energy can be produced on or off-site, and up to 30% of energy can be purchased from external sources.

Wastewater surveillance and risk assessment

The new rules introduce obligations for member states to monitor health parameters in urban wastewaters to track the presence of pathogens responsible for human diseases and pandemics, such as SARS-CoV-2 virus (coronavirus), poliovirus, and influenza virus.

In addition, member states are required to assess the risks to the environment and human health caused by urban wastewater discharges, and, where necessary, take additional measures on top of the minimum requirements set in the directive to address these risks.

Next steps

The general approach will serve as the Council’s mandate for negotiations with the European Parliament on the final shape of the legislation. The outcome of the negotiations will have to be formally adopted by the Council and the Parliament.

Background

The urban wastewater treatment directive was adopted in 1991. The objective of this directive is to “protect the environment from adverse effects of wastewater discharges from urban sources and specific industries”. Under the current directive, member states are required to ensure that wastewater from all agglomerations above 2 000 inhabitants is collected and treated according to EU minimum standards. Member states also have to designate sensitive areas, according to criteria included in the Directive, for which stricter standards and deadlines apply.

The Commission conducted an evaluation of the directive in 2019. This evaluation confirmed that the implementation of the directive has led to a significant reduction in pollutant releases. One of the key reasons for the directive’s effectiveness lies in the simplicity of its requirements, which allows for straightforward enforcement. Today 98% of EU wastewaters are adequately collected and 92% adequately treated.

However, the evaluation showed that there are still sources of pollution that are not yet adequately addressed by the current rules. These include pollution from smaller agglomerations, storm water overflows and micropollutants that damage the environment. Additionally, the evaluation highlighted the urban wastewater sector as one of the largest consumers of energy in the public sector. The new rules aim to address these remaining issues and improve the sector’s contribution to achieving the EU climate goals.

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