Commission takes Italy to Court to prevent hydro-electric plant from damaging river habitats

The European Commission has decided to refer Italy to the European Court of Justice with regard to a hydro-electric project in Lombardy that involves abstracting water from the Schiesone River (Sondrio).

April 16, 2004 -- The European Commission has decided to refer Italy to the European Court of Justice with regard to a hydro-electric project in Lombardy that involves abstracting water from the Schiesone River (Sondrio).

The Commission is concerned that this project will lead to the deterioration of important fluvial habitats within a site that is nominated for special protection under the EU's Habitats Directive.

Species like the otter and the yellow-bellied toad live there and these species as well as the habitat itself might be threatened as the construction would reduce the quantity of water in the river.

In 2003, the Italian authorities informed the Commission of technical mitigation measures aimed at limiting negative impacts upon fluvial habitats. However, in February 2004, the Regional Decree that set out these measures was overturned by an Italian administrative court. Construction works are continuing, and there is a significant risk of irreparable environmental damage.

Commenting on the decision, Environment Commissioner, Margot Wallström, said: "Member States have committed themselves to halting the loss of bio-diversity in the EU by 2010(1). If this objective is to be achieved, they must be ready to implement the necessary practical measures. Therefore I urge Italy to stop or modify this project. "

Habitats Directive

The Habitats Directive(2) puts in place a comprehensive protection scheme for a range of animals and plants, as well as for a selection of habitat types. It provides for the creation, by June 1998, of a network of protected sites known as Natura 2000, which embrace SPAs designated under the Wild Birds Directive and sites proposed by Member States under the Habitats Directive.

The sites proposed by Member States must be based on scientific criteria and scientific information. All sites in the network must respect the safeguards set out.

These include the prior assessment of potentially damaging plans and projects, the requirement that these plans and projects be approved only if they represent an overriding interest and only if no alternative solution exists, and measures for providing compensatory habitats in the event of damage.

Once fully in place, this network should ensure that the best examples of EU natural habitats and areas hosting rare and endangered plant and animal species are properly conserved and protected.

The Habitats Directive is the EU's flagship contribution to safeguarding global bio-diversity. In addition to providing for the creation of Natura 2000, the Habitats Directive provides for a ban on the downgrading of breeding and resting places for certain animal species. Derogations can be granted, but only under strict conditions.

Legal Process

Article 226 of the Treaty gives the Commission powers to take legal action against a Member State that is not respecting its obligations. If the Commission considers that there may be an infringement of EU law that warrants the opening of an infringement procedure, it addresses a "Letter of Formal Notice" (first written warning) to the Member State concerned, requesting it to submit its observations by a specified date, usually two months.

In the light of the reply or absence of a reply from the Member State concerned, the Commission may decide to address a "Reasoned Opinion" (final written warning) to the Member State. This clearly and definitively sets out the reasons why it considers there to have been an infringement of EU law and calls upon the Member State to comply within a specified period, usually two months.

If the Member State fails to comply with the Reasoned Opinion, the Commission may decide to bring the case before the Court of Justice.

Article 228 of the Treaty gives the Commission power to act against a Member State that does not comply with a previous judgement of the European Court of Justice. The article also allows the Commission to ask the Court to impose a financial penalty on the Member State concerned.

For current statistics on infringements in general see:

http://europa.eu.int

(1) Decision of the European Council in Göteburg in June 2001 to halt biodiversity decline within the EU by 2010

(2) Council Directive 92/43/EEC on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild flora and fauna


More in Home