NGOs mobilise in favour of EU liability rules

Groups seek widely scope, strict application, in future environmental liability directive

European environmental groups are pushing for the development of a strong, comprehensive EU law to impose legal and financial liability on polluters as the European Commission's environment directorate (DGXI) prepares a White Paper on the subject (ENDS Daily 28 January).

The European Environmental Bureau (EEB), which represents over a hundred NGOs, said today that an EU law was clearly needed as an "effective and necessary supplement" to other measures, and criticised a discussion paper presented by DGXI last December.

Any EU environmental liability regime should have a wide scope, the EEB warned, noting that DGXI's current approach might exclude any company or sector not explicitly regulated under EU environmental legislation. Damage to natural habitats not protected under EU law would also be excluded, the group said.

The EEB stressed that the scope of "liable persons" should be broader than that envisaged by DGXI. Banks should not be excluded from liability, it said, since they profit from loans the spending of which might cause environmental damage. "Therefore there is no reason why banks should not be liable in cases where they had prior knowledge of later damage," the EEB said.

DGXI's move to "partially reverse the burden of proof" so that responsibility for damage does not necessarily have to be established for liability to apply is welcomed by the EEB. So is a proposal to give NGOs some legal standing to sue in environmental liability cases. However, the group described as a "contradiction" of the Commission's own policy, DGXI's proposal to restrict NGOs' standing to cases where national administrations had not acted.

The EEB's comments broadly echo an opinion on the prospects for an EU environmental liability regime released earlier this month by Greenpeace. In its paper, Greenpeace also called for an EU law to apply retrospectively as well as to future environmental damage, a point of view hotly contested by potentially affected industries.

Meanwhile, DGXI's proposals are reported to be making slow progress. Though the Commission is politically bound to fulfil a European Parliament request made in 1994 to draft a directive, it has already advanced several times on the dossier only to retreat again.

Several EU member states, notably Germany and the UK, have opposed moves to superimpose an EU-level directive on top of existing national liability provisions. Industry groups are also strongly sceptical of various aspects of the current working paper.

Potentially most damaging for EU environment commissioner Ritt Bjerregaard's project in the short term is expected opposition from other Commission departments. Official publication of the liability White Paper was scheduled for June, but Commission sources suggest it might not now appear until the autumn. Discussions between Commission departments "are going to be quite spicy," one told ENDS Daily.

Follow Up:
EEB, tel: +32 2 289 1090; Greenpeace EU Policy Unit, tel: +32 2 280 1400.

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