The move, announced on 13 March, would permit far tougher penalties for offenders by giving police and the judiciary responsibility for environmental law enforcement at an EU level, instead of pollution control authorities. Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström and Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner António Vitorino said that, at present, too many serious infringements of policy can be met with no more than a fine.

The seven areas which would be classed as criminal activities are:

  • the discharge of hydrocarbons, waste oils or sewage sludge into water;
  • the discharge, emission or introduction of a quantity of materials into air, soil or water and the treatment, disposal, storage, transport, export or import of hazardous waste;
  • the discharge of waste on or into land or into water, including the operation of a landfill;
  • the possession, taking, damaging, killing or trading of or in protected wild fauna and flora species or parts thereof;
  • the significant deterioration of a protected habitat;
  • trade in ozone-depleting substances;
  • the operation of a plant in which a dangerous activity is carried out or in which dangerous substances or preparations are stored or used.

Under the proposals, Member States would themselves decide the criminal penalties for breaches of environmental rules, under their own systems of criminal law, the sanctions would only apply to damage to the environment caused intentionally or by serious negligence.

“The public is increasingly concerned about the continuous lack of application of environmental law in Member States,” Wallström commented. “This is why I announced in the Sixth Environmental Programme (see related story) that improving implementation is a priority and that new initiatives had to be taken in the area of environmental crime. For this reason, the proposal aims at setting a minimum EU standards which all Member States shall have to respect.”

“Envisaging criminal sanctions enables the use of methods of investigation and assistance within and between Member States, which are more efficient than the tools available under the present administrative cooperation,” Vitorino said. “Entrusting the task of imposing sanctions to judicial authorities signifies giving responsibility for enforcing the respect of environmental regulations to different authorities, independent of those which grant exploitation licences and authorisations to pollute. It is therefore an additional guarantee of impartiality.”

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