EU unveils crack-down on "eco-crime"

Commission proposes making most serious breaches of green laws into criminal offences

The European Commission today called for breaches of EU environmental laws in seven key policy areas to be classed as criminal rather than administrative offences throughout the bloc. The change would open the way to much tougher sanctions against offenders by giving police and judicial authorities responsibility for enforcement, rather than pollution control authorities.

"Sanctions currently established by the Member States are not always sufficient to achieve full compliance with [EU] law," environment commissioner Margot Wallström and justice commissioner Antonio Vitorino say in a directive proposal adopted today. "There are still many cases of severe non-observance...which are not subject to sufficiently dissuasive and effective penalties." In many cases authorities are limited to imposing fines, they say.

To remedy this, the Commission wants EU member states to agree that individuals or firms breaching any of over 50 existing EU directives by "intention or serious negligence" be subject to investigation by criminal authorities. If found guilty, they should suffer "effective, proportionate and dissuasive sanctions," it says. These punishments should be determined by member states rather than at EU level, but should include possible imprisonment for individuals breaking the laws.

Mr Vitorino said a key aim of the proposal was to "give responsibility for enforcing...environmental regulations to different authorities, independent of those which grant...authorisations to pollute." This would create "an additional guarantee of impartiality" and give authorities greater scope for cross-border investigations of eco-crimes and the ability to impose stronger sanctions.

The seven "deadly sins" proposed by the Commission are any breaches of EU laws committed while carrying out the following activities: discharging hydrocarbons, waste oils or sewage sludge into water; emitting "materials" into the environment or handling hazardous waste; discharging waste onto land or into water; damaging, killing or trading in protected wild species; significantly deteriorating a protected habitat; trading in ozone-depleting substances; and operating plants in which dangerous activities are carried out or where dangerous substances are stored or used.

The Commission proposal parallels a similar but more ambitious initiative launched by Denmark last year under the EU's little-known "third pillar" (ENDS Daily 5 October 2000). A spokesman for Mr Vitorino denied that the proposal was a rival to Denmark's, but said that, if agreed by member states, it could act as a platform for them to take stronger measures, including extradition of eco-criminals between member states.

Follow Up:
European Commission, tel: +32 2 299 1111, plus press release and directive proposal.

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