Press release: 4 June 2020

Court challenge to “illegal” Lisbon airport plan over wetland threat

The Portuguese government is facing a legal challenge after it approved plans to build Lisbon’s new airport on one of Europe’s most important wetlands – disregarding EU law to do so.

Lawyers from ClientEarth and Sociedade Portuguesa para o Estudo das Aves (SPEA, BirdLife Portugal), supported by seven Portuguese NGOS, have filed a court action with the Lisbon Administrative Court. They argue that the Portuguese authorities failed to properly consider the severe impacts of the future Montijo Airport on an internationally protected nature site before giving the project the green light.

The new airport would be within the Tagus estuary, Portugal’s most important wetland. The site has gained multiple international nature protection statuses because of the hundreds of thousands of birds there, including thousands of migratory wetland birds that congregate for the winter or on their journey between Northern Europe and Africa.

Protected migratory birds and habitats in the Tagus will be permanently disturbed if the airport is constructed. The safety of aircrafts, people and birds would also be threatened by the risk of “bird strikes”, while the health of people and nature would be affected by higher levels of noise and pollution emitted from increased air, road and river traffic.

ClientEarth wildlife lawyer Soledad Gallego said: “The Portuguese government is bound by law to protect the birds and habitats that depend on this unique natural area for survival. Approving this airport would severely deteriorate this important wetland.

“The Portuguese authorities have failed to consider that this project would adversely affect the integrity of this irreplaceable nature reserve. Persevering despite the unnecessary risk it poses to nature is a blatant breach of EU and national nature laws and cannot go unchallenged.”

With this legal action, the groups are aiming to annul Montijo Airport’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which approves the development based on a series of assessments.

In this case, lawyers consider that the Portuguese authorities have failed to carry out reliable assessments and have instead simply proposed to ‘relocate’ the birds that would be affected by restoring marginal areas of the protected area to compensate any negative impacts from the airport.

Failure to fully assess the environmental impact of a project, and jumping to suggesting that birds can and will simply inhabit nearby salt flats instead, is a clear breach of EU and national laws.

Joaquim Teodósio from SPEA said: “An estuary of this size is an ecosystem of enormous complexity that cannot be replicated. Considering this project will have negative impacts across practically all sectors, from public health to nature conservation – a more ill-suited location could not have been chosen. The Tagus Estuary is the worst possible place to install an airport. It simply makes no sense.”

In Portugal, the construction has been met by public and political outcry. Environmental groups in Portugal have also expressed their disapproval, with experts citing the construction as a “crime against nature”.

In the Netherlands, thousands of people have signed a petition against the construction, as it would seriously threaten the migratory black-tailed godwit, the Dutch national bird.

Gallego added: “Montijo Airport could have far-reaching consequences felt well beyond Portuguese borders. Failure to consider this will cause irreversible damage to nature, people and the climate.”


Notes to editor

National environmental groups supporting SPEA and ClientEarth’s legal action are: Liga para a Protecção da Natureza (LPN), Associação Natureza Portugal (ANP|WWF), ZERO – Associação Sistema Terrestre Sustentável, Fundo para a Protecção dos Animais (FAPAS), Grupo de Estudos de Ordenamento do Território e Ambiente (GEOTA), Associação de Defesa do Património Cultural e Ambiental do Algarve (Almargem) and Associação Cristã de Estudo e Defesa do Ambiente Cruzinha (A Rocha).

The new airport would be located in the Tagus Estuary, close to Portugal’s capital. It is one of the main estuaries in Western Europe and is Portugal’s most important wetland for waterfowl. The area affected by the new airport is protected as a Special Protection Area (SPA) and Site of Community Importance (SCI) under the EU’s Natura 2000 network; a Ramsar wetland; and a Portuguese Nature Reserve.

The Tagus estuary regularly hosts up to 200,000 wintering waterfowl and is the most important place in the country for the wintering of ducks, waders, flamingos, and gulls. Meanwhile, in any given migration season, the Tagus can play host to in excess of 300,000 birds, as it acts as crucial pitstop for migratory birds on their long journey.

Constructing Montijo Airport aims to increase the airport capacity of the Lisbon Region, by turning the Montijo Air Force Base (BA6) into a commercial airport. The new airport would be located approximately 11km southeast of Humberto Delgado International Airport (AHD-Lisbon) and will complement the existing airport. It is intended to be used by low-cost airline companies.

If Montijo Airport comes into operation in 2022, it is expected to have a capacity of 7.8 million passengers and 46,000 aircraft movements per year. In 2062, this is expected to increase to 17.4 million passengers and 85,000 movements per year.

In January 2020, the Portuguese Environment Agency approved the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for Montijo Airport.

An EIS is a document in which the government sets out its assessment of a project’s impact on the environment. EU law requires a series of assessments to be carried out to determine a project’s impact on a protected site. Only after these assessments have been conducted, and show no harm would be caused to the area, can a project go ahead.

Exceptions are only made when there are no alternative options. In these cases, the authorities must provide a solution to compensate for the damages caused by the project.

About ClientEarth

ClientEarth is a charity that uses the power of the law to protect people and the planet. We are international lawyers finding practical solutions for the world’s biggest environmental challenges. We are fighting climate change, protecting oceans and wildlife, making forest governance stronger, greening energy, making business more responsible and pushing for government transparency. We believe the law is a tool for positive change. From our offices in London, Brussels, Warsaw, Berlin and Beijing, we work on laws throughout their lifetime, from the earliest stages to implementation. And when those laws are broken, we go to court to enforce them.

About SPEA

The Sociedade Portuguesa para o Estudo das Aves (“Portuguese Society for the Study of Birds”, BirdLife’s partner in Portugal) works to protect Portuguese birds and the habitats they depend on. Thanks to the support of members, volunteers and partners, SPEA monitors the state of Portuguese birds, protect and restores their habitats, pushes for better laws, fights environmental crime, promotes the value of nature for the general public and much, much more.