The Law Decree no. 79/1995 was finally made law with the Law no. 17/05/95 no. 172, the Decree being the last of a series of decrees which since July 1994 have reformed the important Merli Law no. 319 of 1976, which regulates the area of dumping of so-called civil and industrial water.

The reform is innovative in three main areas: the framework of sanctions, the relationship between the current system of checks on water discharges and the rules contained in the EC Directive no. 91/271; and finally the power of regional autonomy to fix limits on the acceptability of discharges which depart from the national parameters.

The reform, in respect of its relationship with the Directive 91/271, only establishes that the drafting of regional plans for cleaning-up water must be linked to the principles and criteria established by the Directive itself. As far as the power of the Regions to fix limits of acceptability different to the national ones is concerned, the reform has established the principle of effective regional competence and that in the exercise of their power of derogation, the Regions are only tied to the limits imposed by current national legislation.

However, the area of immediate interest to medium-sized and large industries in Italy, in relation to the reform, is the change to the framework of sanctions.

In brief, the post-reform regime is as follows: ignoring the regional limits of acceptability will lead to a merely administrative sanction of a pecuniary nature; however, in the event of exceeding the limits imposed in the tables attached to the Merli Law and, therefore, ignoring the national limits of acceptability will lead to a penal sanction, but, subject to any settlement out of court on the part of the guilty party.

The big novelty that the reform has brought to the Merli Law is that, until now, as known, exceeding the limits set by the tables led to arrest without the alternative of a fine. Now, however, it is possible for an entrepreneur under investigation for discharging ebb water with values in excess of those laid down by the tables, to avoid proceedings by asking to be allowed to make a settlement out of court.

In this way, the person under investigation, apart from avoiding public debate, something that has always been traumatic, will avoid criminal sanctions by paying a sum by way of settlement, with the resulting annulment of proceedings against him on the basis of a procedure closer to absolution, the exact wording of which is "not to proceed against a defendant because of the annulment as a result of an intervening settlement". The main advantage of being able to ask for a settlement is that it avoids the need for proceedings, the result of which is, unfortunately, always uncertain.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.