In court: June 2015

29th May 2015


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Author

Josh Fothergill

A round-up of the latest environmental court cases.

Supreme court rules in air quality case

Environment secretary Liz Truss must set out by the end of the year how the government plans to improve air quality after the Supreme court ruled that Defra had breached EU legislation to limit nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions (p.12).

The ruling brings to an end a five-year legal battle by NGO ClientEarth to hold the UK government to account for failing to comply with the ambient air quality Directive, which came into force at the start of 2010. At the time, NO2 levels in 40 of the 43 air quality zones in the UK were exceeding the annual 40 μg/m3 threshold. Several countries, including the UK, were granted five-year extensions, but Defra acknowledged in 2014 that 16 areas would not meet the revised 2015 deadline, with London, Birmingham and Leeds likely to breach the thresholds until beyond 2030 under the existing plan from the environment department.

In 2013, the Supreme court ruled that the UK had breached the directive and asked the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) for a preliminary ruling on several questions on interpretation of EU law. The case was referred back to the Supreme court by the CJEU in November 2104 after it ruled that UK courts must require Defra to produce a meaningful plan to ensure that the limits on NO2 emissions are met as soon as possible.

The latest judgment, issued before the general election, stated: "The new government, whatever its political complexion, should be left in no doubt as to the need for immediate action to address this issue." Measures that Defra must consider include low emission zones, congestion charging and other economic incentives.

A spokesperson for Defra said: "Air quality has improved significantly in recent years and, as this judgment recognises, work is already under way on revised plans to meet EU targets on NO2 as soon as possible."

In February 2014, the European commission launched separate legal proceedings against the UK for failing to cut NO2 emissions.

Sita fined £20,000 for permit breach

Breaching leachate volumes at a landfill site in Perthshire 18 times between December 2012 and June 2013 and failing to report the problem has resulted in Sita UK being fined £20,000.

Perth sheriff court was told that three leachate wells at the Binn landfill site at Glenfarg were in excess of the two-metre limit over the four-month period. Leachate is the liquid that forms when waste degrades in landfill. To reduce the risk of it escaping and polluting groundwater, regulators impose a limit on the levels that can be reached. In this case, Sita failed to ensure that accumulation at the low point of each leachate collection system was kept below the two-metre ceiling.

The company also failed to notify the Scottish Environment Protection Agency that leachate levels had exceeded two-metres. The waste management business pleaded guilty to both offences.

Earlier this year, Sita UK was fined £110,000 by Redhill magistrates' court for breaching the leachate levels set out in the environmental permit for its landfill site at Albury, near Guildford, throughout 2013.

Roundup of EU infringements

The European commission is taking several members states to the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) for failing to comply with EU environmental legislation. France has been referred to the CJEU for failing to ensure wastewater treatment met EU standards in 17 agglomerations. The commission had warned France in 2009 that it contravened the urban wastewater treatment Directive that requires member states to ensure water from towns, cities and settlements is properly collected and treated.

Poland and Slovenia face legal proceedings for failing to enact revised EU legislation on waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE). The commission is asking the court to impose a daily fine of €71,610 on Poland and €8,408 on Slovenia until the rules, which should have been transposed into domestic law by 14 February 2014, are enacted. Finally, the commission is taking Romania to court for failing to transpose the revised packaging Directive. The deadline was 30 September 2013, but the Romanian authorities have still not enacted the directive.

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