On 29 January the European Commission issued a series of legal threats to Member States for alleged breaches of EU legislation on air quality and industrial pollution.
Eight countries – Belgium, Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia and Spain – were given a second and final warning, the last legal step before being taken to the European Court of Justice, over their failure to issue permits to industrial installations under the 1996 integrated pollution prevention and control (IPPC) directive. First written warnings were given to Denmark and Ireland for the same reason.
At the same time, first warnings were sent to ten states – Cyprus, Estonia, Germany, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the UK – for failing to comply with air quality standards for health-damaging particulate matter (PM10) in force since 1 January 2005. They had so far not submitted requests for time extensions for meeting the limits, although some were in the process of doing so. While the air quality directive contains some degree of fl exibility and allows time extensions if certain conditions are met, these derogations must not delay measures to reduce emissions. And in areas where time extensions are not applicable the standards must be fully respected. As described in articles in this issue of Acid News, many Member States also appear to have great difficulty complying with other air quality related legislation. In 2006 almost 30 per cent of the large combustion plants in the EU – according to Member States’ own reports – operated above the binding emission limit values for SO2 and NOx set by the large combustion plants (LCP) directive.
According to an analysis carried out by the European Environment Agency, sixteen Member States are likely to exceed their national limits on emissions of at least one of four key air pollutants set for 2010 in the national emissions ceilings (NEC) directive. Since the NECs are set for 2010, a final judgement on whether or not countries have eventually complied with their ceilings or not, cannot be made until about two years later, when all the necessary emission data is final. Th is is however a clear warning signal that several countries that expect to exceed their NECs have not reported on plans to implement additional measures that may allow them to comply with their ceilings. According to the directive, any country that is not on track should already have developed and presented such plans by 2006. The fact that the air quality directive was recently revised, that the IPPC and LCP directives are currently under revision, and that the NEC directive is scheduled for revision does not relieve Member States of the existing legal obligations of those directives.
In contrast to most international environmental treaties, the EU does actually have the tools needed for strict enforcement. Financial penalties can be imposed either as a periodic (e.g. daily) penalty payment that aims to put an end as soon as possible to a breach of obligations, or as a lump sum, in particular where the breach has persisted for a long period, or both types of penalties can be combined and imposed simultaneously. Considering the serious and widespread damage to health and the environment caused by excessive air pollution, compliance with all these directives is essential, and strict enforcement action by the Commission must be a top priority.