New infrastructure project halted in France

Environment, industry ministers suspend planned power line through regional park

The French government has suspended a project to build a 110km high-voltage power line through the Verdon natural park, reversing a decision by the previous administration. Announced jointly by the environment and industry ministers Dominique Voynet and Christian Pierret on Friday, the decision is the latest in a series in which the government has scrapped or put on hold large infrastructure projects since coming to power this summer.

The state electricity company Electricité de France has had plans since 1990 to install a 400kV power line through the middle of the Verdon gorge, a 177,000 hectare natural area close to Nice. In February, the then prime minister, Alain Juppé approved the scheme against substantial local opposition. But shortly afterwards, the environment ministry designated the area a regional nature park, thus affording it statutory protection.

Dr Voynet and Mr Pierret have now called for the issue to be referred to the National Commission for Public Debate, an institution set up in 1995, but which became moribund until the new environment minister resurrected it this summer. It was essential, the two ministers said, to consider "all the solutions...to supply electricity without damaging the environment".

The project's suspension follows several similar decisions by the government. Shortly after coming to office, prime minister Lionel Jospin announced that the controversial Superphénix fast breeder reactor - which has operated for only 30 months since 1986 and cost FFr34bn (Ecu5.2bn) - was to be closed. A strongly contested plan to build a canal between the Rhine and Rhône rivers was scrapped. More recently, disputed new motorways planned near Grenoble and Nice were suspended, and plans for a new nuclear power station at Le Carnet on the River Loire were stopped.

High on Dr Voynet's agenda in all this, has been a desire to modify France's planning system, which she described in July as "archaic" (ENDS Daily 11 July). In particular, the minister has announced an intention to alter the "declaration of public benefit" procedure.

Under current rules, if national, regional or local authorities propose an infrastructure project, then public consultation procedures begin only after the scheme has been defined and impact and feasibility studies have been carried out. Dr Voynet wants public input on projects' suitability and design to be sought at a much earlier stage in the decision-making process.

Follow Up:
French environment ministry, tel: +33 1 42 19 20 21; French transport ministry, tel: +33 1 40 81 21 22.

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