The sanction that Spain has to face for the lack of wastewater treatment in nine urban agglomerations – in which more than 350 live . 000 people— continues to increase: now amounts to 53, 4 million euros. It is the largest fine in the European Union that Spain has had to face since it joined the community club. It will continue to grow semester by semester as long as the problems in all these areas denounced by Brussels are not solved.
When the Court of Justice of the European Union issued in July 2018 the sentence for which this fine was imposed, which grows at the rate of slightly more than 10 million per semester, the Ministry for Ecological Transition presented a calendar in which it was set 2023 as the year in which the treatment plants of the nine affected agglomerations would be ready. But now the horizon for all the works to be executed and fully operational is 2024 or 2025, according to this department. At the moment, only the Tarifa (Cádiz) agglomeration station has been started up, which treats wastewater from 20.000 population. The rest face procedures, executions and start-ups that take forever while the European fine continues to grow. These are the treatment plants in the agglomerations of Matalascañas (Huelva), Alhaurín el Grande (Málaga), Isla Cristina (Huelva), Coín (Málaga), Barbate (Cádiz), Nerja (Málaga), Gijón Este and Valle de Güímar (Santa Cruz de Tenerife).
The beginning of this sanction dates back to 31 December 2000, date on which all agglomerations of more than 15. 000 inhabitants of the European Union had to properly purify their waters according to a directive. 21 years ago, non-compliance was massive in Spain. Little by little, notice after the notice of the European Commission, the number of agglomerations without purification was reduced. But, more than two decades later, there are still these eight cores of more than 15. 000 inhabitants without properly treating their waters, something that affects the good condition of the rivers and seas where the discharges are made.
Teodoro Estrela, general director of Water of the Ministry for Ecological Transition, hopes that the treatment plants that will serve two of the largest agglomerations – Gijón Este and Nerja – can be ready in the first quarter of 2022. This will reduce the semiannual penalty by half, to around five million, Estrela estimates. But, according to the person in charge of the Ministry’s Water area, to see all the treatment plants in operation it will be necessary to wait until 2024 or 2025, two years later than planned so far. The ministry estimates that the final fine for this case will exceed 80 million euros.
The powers over purification of waters are of the local administrations. But when the municipalities or associations cannot afford the expenses, the autonomous communities usually take over the works. This has occurred in four of the eight cases affected by this European sanction —which are being paid by the State and the affected autonomous communities—. The other four treatment plants have been declared of general interest, a figure that the current ministry team now questions. Because the putting into operation of the treatment plants declared in this way sometimes faces delays due to the difficulty in recovering costs, which end up having to face some municipalities that claim that they do not have resources even for the maintenance of the facilities. In other cases, there are problems in the processing of projects that end up in court. “People don’t want to have a treatment plant next to their house and they resort to it,” says Estrela as an example. In any case, the Court of Justice of the EU emphasized in its judgment of July 2018 that “the internal legal and economic difficulties that Spain” invoked “to justify its delay in the execution “of the works” does not exempt him from the obligations derived from the law of the Union. “
When it is achieved that the treatment plants of the eight agglomerations for which Spain was condemned in 2018 come into operation, the problem of treatment in the country will not be solved by any means. European regulations establish that 2. 059 urban agglomerations of more than 2. 000 inhabitants of Spain must treat their wastewater correctly. But, according to the current national treatment plan, approved last July, 516 do not comply with what the water directives establish, that is, the 25% of the total. For this reason, Spain has five European files open at the moment – and another could come shortly – which could also end in millionaire sanctions if non-compliance continues.
Estrela explains that the problems are now centered in the smallest agglomerations, those between 2. 000 and 5. 000 inhabitants and who do not have enough resources to face the construction of the treatment plants and their maintenance. The objective is that in 2027, almost four decades after the approval of the European directive on purification, Spain finally complies with what Brussels establishes.
The director General of the Ministry of Water considers that the European recovery funds may represent an opportunity to accelerate the purification works. But Estrela advocates a change in the model that has been used so far, that of declaring works of general interest for the State to assume, even if it is not within its competence. The new route would involve opening a line of subsidies for the municipalities to carry out the works and face the maintenance of the missing treatment plants with this public aid.
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