Jail looms for eco-offenders

Those guilty of environmental crimes could find themselves facing more than fines if plans proposed by the European Commission are adopted.

Under the plans environmental offences would be dealt with by criminal rather than civil courts meaning those found guilty of dumping toxic and nuclear waste or trading illegally harvested timber or endangered animals could be imprisoned.

Emission of hazardous substances into the air, water or soil would also be treated as criminal acts.

The EC proposals include appropriate sentences for various offences and argue that a prison sentence is a much more effective disincentive than administrative sanctions such as fines or restrictions on future operation.

Member states would have to ensure that particularly serious environmental crimes are punishable by a maximum of at least five years imprisonment and fines for companies of at least 750,000 Euro.

These cases would include crimes that have resulted in death or serious injury of a person or a substantial damage to air, soil, water, animals or plants or when the offence has been committed by a criminal organisation.

The sanctions would also be expected to allow courts to permanently shut down companies or force offenders to clean-up any damage they have caused.

Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said: “The recent hazardous waste disaster in the Ivory Coast shows how environmental crimes can have devastating effects on people and the environment. It also underlines once again how urgent it is to improve the way environmental legislation is enforced in order to avoid such incidents”.

The proposals are likely to face fierce resistance when they come before the Council of Ministers, as criminal law tends to be an area where individual states are keen to maintain their sovereignty.

The commission will be pushing for their acceptance, however, as it argues that parts of the EU where regulation and enforcement are relatively weak are being exploited by the unscrupulous and that has implications for both human health and the environment throughout the union.

“The proposed directive is crucial to avoid criminals profiting from the existing discrepancies in Member States’ criminal law systems which damage the European environment,” said Franco Frattini, the Commission’s Vice-President responsible for Justice, Freedom and Security.

“We cannot allow safe-havens of environmental crime inside the EU.”

Sam Bond

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