THE government is facing legal action over its failure to ensure the proper treatment of waste water at three North-East sites.

The European Commission has referred the UK government to the European Court of Justice court over the inadequate treatment of urban waste water at 15 locations around the country, including Durham (Barkers Haugh), Chester-le-Street and Chilton (also known as Windlestone).

If the case goes ahead, the UK could be fined for breaching Europe-wide waste legislation.

The EU law was agreed in 1991, with countries given until 1998 to ensure waste water from urban areas discharged into sensitive areas was treated in accordance with stringent rules. Longer was allowed for less sensitive areas.

Health chiefs say untreated waste water poses a risk both to human health, as it may be contaminated with harmful bacteria and viruses, and to inland waters and the marine environment.

The Commission says there are ten UK areas where waste water is discharged into sensitive areas such as freshwaters and estuaries and the existing treatment is not good enough.

They are: Lidsey, Tiverton, Durham (Barkers Haugh), Chester-le-Street, Winchester Central and South (Morestead), Islip, Broughton Astley, Chilton (also known as Windlestone), Witham and Chelmsford.

Four less sensitive areas were judged to have inadequate treatment, Banchory, Stranraer, Ballycastle and Clacton; and Gibraltar has no treatment plant at all.

The case also concerns “excessive spills” from storm water overflows at Llanelli and Gowerton.

No authority would release further details of the case, due to court proceedings being live.

However, a spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said: “Across England, 98 per cent of waste water plants are operating to a good standard.

“Overall the UK has good compliance with the (Urban Waste Water Treatment) Directive and water companies have committed around £13.5bn to make the necessary improvements to get all treatment plants up to the EU standards.”

Barkers Haugh sewage works, on Frankland Lane, Durham, was the subject of complaints about bad smells some years ago, before Northumbrian Water took action to tackle the problem.