EC takes action against countries that pollute

Belgium, Greece, Romania asked to implement EU air quality standards.

June 29, 2010 21:43
3 minute read.
EC takes action against countries that pollute

air pollution 224 88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])

The European Commission last week asked Belgium, Greece and Romania to implement in full EU air quality legislation on particulates.

The three member states have so far failed to tackle excess emissions of tiny airborne particles known as PM10. These particles are mainly present in pollutant emissions from industry, traffic and domestic heating, and can cause asthma, cardiovascular problems, lung cancer and premature death.

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That same week the European Commission referred Belgium back to the EU’s Court of Justice for its failure to bring the country’s waste water treatment up to the standards required by EU law. The commission has asked the court to impose a lump-sum fine on Belgium of more than €15 million and a daily penalty payment of nearly €62,000.

Regarding the air pollution issue, the European Directive required member states to ensure by 2005 that certain limits for PM10 are met. The limits cover both an annual concentration value (40 mg. per cu.m.), and a daily concentration value (50 mg. per cu.m.) that must not be exceeded more than 35 times per calendar year.

Countries may apply for exemptions from the PM10 limit values until June 2011, but these exemptions are subject to a number of conditions. Member states must demonstrate that they have taken steps to achieve compliance by the extended deadline, and are implementing an air quality plan setting out the relevant abatement actions for each air quality zone.

Information available to the commission indicates that the limit values for PM10 have not been respected in several zones throughout Belgium and Greece since 2005. Although both member states applied for time extensions, the commission considered that the conditions had not been met. Following the opening of an infringement procedure, Romania submitted an exemption request that is now pending assessment by the commission.

Since several areas recorded as exceeding the PM10 limit values were not covered by this request, the commission has decided to send a “reasoned opinion” to Romania.

Each member state is responsible for the implementation of EU law (adoption of implementing measures before a specified deadline, conformity and correct application) within its own legal system. Belgium, Greece and Romania have two months to comply with the requests, which take the form of reasoned opinions under EU infringement procedures, failing which the commission may refer them to its Court of Justice.

In regards to water waste, the commission referred Belgium back to the court for its failure to comply with a previous court ruling on the collection and treatment of urban waste water. Under the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive, towns and cities across the European Union are required to collect and treat their urban waste water. Untreated waste water can be contaminated with harmful bacteria and viruses and thus presents a risk to public health.

It also contains nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous that can damage freshwaters and the marine environment by promoting excessive growth of algae that chokes other life, a process known as eutrophication. The main type of waste water treatment envisaged by the directive is biological or “secondary” treatment.

However, where agglomerations of over 10,000 inhabitants discharge into water bodies designated as sensitive, more stringent treatment is also needed.

The court ruled in July 2004 that Belgium had failed to comply with the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive. Under the legislation, all urban waste water generated by agglomerations of over 10,000 people must be collected and then treated before being discharged into the environment. As Belgium has designated its entire national territory as a “sensitive area” (i.e. an area that suffers from eutrophication or that may suffer from it in the absence of protective measures), the treatment must be more stringent to significantly reduce phosphorous and nitrate levels in waters before they are discharged.

The court ruled that some Belgian regions did not collect and treat in a satisfactory manner part of the urban waste water they generated. The commission has therefore decided to bring legal action against Belgium for noncompliance with the court’s judgment and ask for a lump sum fine of over €15 million and a daily penalty payment of nearly €62,000 as long as the infringement persists after the second court ruling. To calculate the level of fine proposed to the court, the commission took into consideration the seriousness of the infringement and the member state’s ability to pay.

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The author is the head of the International Department at GSCB Law Firm.

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