Spanish court backs controversial dam

Itoiz project gets renewed green light, overturning supreme court block on completion

The Constitutional Court, Spain's senior judicial body, yesterday backed completion of the controversial Itoiz dam project in Navarre, northern Spain, overturning a previous decision by the country's Supreme Court.

The court's judgement upholds a law passed by the regional parliament of Navarre in 1996. This allowed changes to two nature reserves in a zone designated as a special protection area under the 1979 EU wild birds directive to allow work on the dam to proceed. The dam had previously been declared illegal by Spain's high court because of its projected severe environmental impacts. The European Commission had also threatened infringement proceedings for breaches of the wild birds and 1992 habitats directives, but dropped its action in 1994.

In 1997, Spain's supreme court ruled the Navarran law unconstitutional because of its retroactive nature. It ordered changes to the plan to reduce the reservoir volume from 418 cubic hectometres to nine.

Responding to yesterday's ruling, Navarre's president, Miguel Sanz, described the Itoiz dam as "essential" for the region. But Jose Luis Beaumont, the legal adviser to the main organisation opposing construction (Coordinadora de Itoiz), said it was "a return to square one". He said he would appeal in the European Court of Human Rights.

The nearly-completed dam will cost an estimated euros 168m (SPtas28bn) and affect two river valleys containing nesting sites of some of Europe's rarest bird species. Its reservoir will cover six villages, requiring evacuation of their inhabitants.

Opposition to the Itoiz dam has sparked Spain's biggest environmental protest campaign of the last ten years. Apart from the lengthy courtroom battles, acts of sabotage against the building work have resulted in heavy prison sentences for those involved. High profile protests against the scheme have been made in a number of European capitals outside Spain in recent months.

Follow Up:
Spanish Constitutional Court, tel: +34 91 549 2610; Navarre government, tel: +34 948 427 100; Coordinadora de Itoiz, tel: +34 948 226 128.

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