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Top EU court finds Britain guilty of dumping raw sewage

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Britain faces large fines for breaching European Union law on water treatment after plants in northern England and London dumped raw sewage into waterways, the European Court of Justice ruled on Thursday.

The court has the power to impose fines of thousands of euros per day, but has yet to decide what the fine will be.

Under an EU law introduced in 1991, known as a directive, Britain was obliged to meet new standards for treating waste water. While other member states have respected the law, Britain has not.

“The United Kingdom has failed to fulfil its obligations under (the) directive,” the Luxembourg-based court said.

It said plants in Whitburn in northern England and in London had dumped sewage in local waterways.

London’s sewer system, much of which dates back to Victorian times, discharges raw waste into the River Thames when rainfall overwhelms the 19th-century tunnels.

“So far as concerns the treatment plants of the collecting system for London ... their capacity is sufficient in dry weather, but not sufficient in the slightest in the case of rainfall,” the court said.

Britain said that as it had already taken steps to fix the problem and that it was complying with EU regulations.

The court rejected its argument.

“A member state may not plead practical or administrative difficulties in order to justify non-compliance with the obligations and time limits laid down by a directive. The same holds true of financial difficulties, which it is for the member states to overcome by adopting appropriate measures,” it said.

London has commissioned a massive 4 billion pounds tunnel, dubbed the ‘super-sewer’, underneath the Thames to solve the capacity problem.

But local residents and politicians have raised objections to the cost, which would drive up water bills.

In 2010, the European Commission asked the European Court of Justice to impose a lump sum fine of 15 million euros on Belgium for water violations, and a daily fine of 62,000 euros.

Reporting By Ethan Bilby