Commission proposes new directive on access to environmental information

Public participation in environmental decision making could be improved with the European Commission’s adoption on Monday of a proposal for a Directive on public access to environmental information.

The new proposal would improve on the 1990 Directive on the freedom of access to information on the environment, and replace it with increased rights of the public, says the Commission. It is also an adaptation to the electronic revolution, reflecting the changes in the way information is created, collected, stored and made available to the public.

The proposal is designed to bring the European Community in line with international law laid out by the 1998 Aarhus Convention on public access to information, participation and justice in environmental affairs.

“Improved access to environmental information is a pre-condition for a higher degree of involvement of citizens and stakeholders in environmental decision-making,” said Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom. “We need this to achieve better informed and accountable decisions – and support for decisions taken on the road towards sustainable development.”

The information to be made available to the public would include the texts of international, national, regional or local legislation, treaties, conventions or agreements relating to the environment, as well as any environmental policies or plans, and their progress reports. Data from monitoring activities which might possibly affect the environment would also be made available, and all information provided must be clear and comprehensible.

Member states would ensure that at least every four years, national, regional or local reports on the state of the environment are published, which should include both the state of the environment and the pressures on it. In the event of an imminent threat to human health or the environment, whether from natural or unnatural causes, all information which would help those affected to take measures to protect themselves should be made available immediately.

Under the proposal public authorities would have to maintain information in formats which are readily reproducible and a accessible via the internet.

The Commission proposes that environmental information be made available to anyone applying for it within one month without them having to state a reason for their interest. The waiting period can be extended to two months if the volume or complexity of the request requires it, but the applicant has to be informed of the delay as soon as possible. If the applicant needs the information for a particular purpose, the authority is required to make reasonable efforts to provide it within the time period to allow the applicant to fulfil that purpose.

It is admitted in the directive that, in practice, these increased duties of public authorities may necessitate the appointment of information officers, and the establishment of facilities for the public examination of information.

There is still scope for authorities to refuse to divulge information, but this is to be narrowed under the proposal. Naturally, if the authority does not hold the information, it cannot divulge it, but requests must be transferred as soon as possible to authorities which do hold the information. Unreasonable or requests that are too general are permitted to be refused, or information which is not within the public interest to be divulged, which may include incomplete material or internal communications.

Other valid reasons for refusing information include occasions when such disclosure might adversely affect public security and national defence, or upset the course of justice so that the ability of a person to receive a fair trial is damaged. Legitimate economic interest may be protected, but information on emissions, discharges or other releases into the environment which are subject to EC legislation is not protected.

Public authorities are permitted to charge a ‘reasonable amount’ for providing information, though examination in situ should be free of charge, as should information which is already publicly available in an easily accessible format, such as via the Internet.

The proposal also allows for access to justice for those who believe that their request has been unfairly refused. There should be access to a legal review procedure, as well as a review either by the authority involved, or by another body, which should be either free of charge or inexpensive.

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