Monday, 18 October 2010

EU environmental law – does it really protect us?

The Hungarian red mud incident has shown us that European law is insufficient to protect us from the consequences of environmental damage. EU environmental law must be tightened in order to ensure that such incidents do not occur in the future and to ensure that liability is made clear when such accidents do occur.

European environmental law is designed to improve and maintain a high quality of life for EU citizens. This takes the form of directives and is supported by case study law, which tests the application of such laws. EU environmental law is based on the polluter pays principle.

The recent spill of toxic waste in Hungary involved the accidental release of over one million cubic metres of so called red mud, which has affected air, land and water. Nine people have died and 120 injured in the incident after a reservoir containing the toxic waste from an aluminium plant burst, flooding local villages and sending the waste into local waterways, which feeds the river Danube. The CEO of the company was arrested, but has since been released due to a lack of evidence against him. In fact, the company involved cannot be prosecuted for harm to people, although it can be made liable to damage to the environment.

So which EU laws cover this incident? One possibly relevant directive is the EU Waste Framework directive, which invokes the polluter pays principle. Unfortunately this directive only covers highly toxic waste. The plant was given permission to operate in 2006 under the IPPC directive, which requires businesses to comply to certain conditions in order to operate. In retrospect it seems that the permit to operate was issued without the company complying to the mandatory environmental conditions as stated in that directive. Unlike with the Superfund in the USA, there are no sources of funding, which can cover the costs of cleaning up this waste. The recently implemented Environmental Liability directive (ELD) however, is currently being re-examined to include mandatory financial security in the light of the red mud disaster and may be tightened to take such incidents into account.

Clearly there are a number of issues here: Existing EU law is insufficient to protect the environment while existing laws are not being implemented properly. Hungary is set to take over presidency of the EU in January next year and is promising to tighten the law, but it seems to be a case of closing the stable doors after the horse has bolted and getting down to business as usual.

The plant has now reopened and villagers invited to return to their homes, giving a clear signal that economic and social concerns are overriding environmental issues as the incident is swept under the (red) carpet. Greenpeace Hungary stated that the decision to allow the villagers to return to their homes was "entirely irresponsible" as no data existed regarding whether it is safe to do this.

The incident in Hungary is certainly not the first,or the last of its kind. An incident in Romania in the year 2000 saw the release of wastes including cyanide and heavy metals from a gold mine entering the river Danube. The mine owners refused to accept liability for the incident, claiming that reports of the damage had been “grossly exaggerated”. Despite demands from Greenpeace at the time for full liability, a ban on mining in sensitive areas and improved working standards nothing was done to improve matters. It must be noted that Romania was not a member of the EU at the time as it joined seven years later in 2007, but the whole region is home to the legacy of ex-Soviet mining, which could lead to many more of such incidents in the future. A spokesman for the World Wide Fund for Nature stated in a recent Guardian article that: "There are a string of disasters waiting to happen at sites across the Danube basin".

It seems that current EU legislation and it's implementation is insufficient to improve and maintain a high quality of life for EU citizens as the case of the red mud spill in Hungary has proven. By re-examining such cases it is hoped that future EU law will prove effective in protecting the environment.

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