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Press release: 26 August 2021
A German court has ruled that permission to build the country’s newest coal plant, Datteln IV, was granted illegally.
The ruling comes as a result of a case brought by local residents, supported by environmental law charity ClientEarth, and another by the North Rhine Westphalia arm of Friends of the Earth (BUND NRW).
The ruling removes one of two legal grounds the hard coal plant needs in order to keep running. The residents already have a second case against the operating permit – the second legal ground – in the pipeline. If Datteln loses both legal bases to operate, its activities must cease.
As one of the last plants scheduled to close in Germany’s contested coal phase-out pathway, an earlier shutdown than 2038 would change the structure of Germany’s prescribed coal exit.
ClientEarth lawyer Francesca Mascha Klein said: “This ruling is yet another message for any political leader or company still backing coal.
“This plant has always been a disaster – based near a children’s hospital, and on the doorstep of hundreds of homes, its toxic emissions and climate burden should have prevented it ever being approved. Finland’s environment minister even expressed public regret that a Finnish company was powering ahead with a new coal plant.
“As the elections loom, and concrete climate impacts hit home in Germany, this is a timely and unmissable message to candidates like Armin Laschet, who are, incredibly, still promoting a ‘softly softly’ approach to moving away from fossil fuels.
“Germany could and should be a leader in pioneering a clean energy transition – instead, citizens are having to force government and companies’ hands in the courts.”
When the plant was first planned, residents and Bund NRW took legal action to fight it – and won, over ten years ago. But the authorities sidestepped the ruling to keep the project going.
In today’s ruling, the judge said “striking errors” had been made by the local authorities.
Klein said: “Amazingly, these cases only became necessary because of the elaborate steps authorities took to protect coal operators, at the expense of people’s health and the environment. This time, things will be different – we will keep supporting the residents in their fight for a safe environment.”
Local resident Rainer Köster said: “We have been waiting for 11 years for this decision and we finally have exactly the news we wanted. I am overjoyed.”
Environmental lawyers ClientEarth are supporting residents with the challenge won today, and the ongoing challenge to the operating permit. Today’s win means Friends of the Earth Germany – North Rhine-Westphalia e.V. (Bund NRW)’s parallel case was also successful.
The plant emits heavy metals and toxic substances including mercury, lead and arsenic, polluting the air and water and presenting health threats from cancer to neurological disorders. An additional threat to residents may be Legionnaire’s disease, as bacteria collects in airborne water droplets from cooling towers.
Already in 2005, plans to build the hard coal plant were being met with resistance. An initial challenge by residents saw the plans for the plant overturned. An injunction by BUND NRW in 2009 to stop construction, and the application to revoke the preliminary permit in 2012, were both successful in court. This removed the legal justification for the plant.
However, instead of stopping construction, the local authorities instead came up with a new set of plans and issued fresh approval on that basis.
The current challenges are against these new plans and approvals.
Local and regional resistance to coal in Germany is growing, with many either living next door to coal facilities or facing eviction to make way for them. ClientEarth is also supporting Menschenrecht vor Bergrecht, a group of villagers in North Rhine-Westphalia who are fighting in court to save their homes from mine expansion.
Finnish-owned Fortum has declared itself to be moving beyond coal, but acquired Uniper, Datteln IV’s operator, notwithstanding.
Investors have already expressed frank dissatisfaction over Datteln IV. A joint letter reads:
“We believe opening the plant is not compatible with an ambitious decarbonisation trajectory and endangers the 2030 deadline for phasing out coal in the OECD – required to keep emissions within the critical 1.5°C carbon budget.”
Finland’s Environment Minister issued a public statement of displeasure over state-owned Fortum’s acquisition of the Datteln IV project. She tweeted (here in translation):
For the sake of the climate we have to get rid of coal plants, not open new ones. I encourage Fortum to actively seek a solution in order to ensure that its subsidiary Uniper withholds from opening the new Datteln coal plant. I have discussed the German coal phase-out plans with the German Greens. 3/3
ClientEarth is a non-profit organisation that uses the law to create systemic change that protects the Earth for – and with – its inhabitants. We are tackling climate change, protecting nature and stopping pollution, with partners and citizens around the globe. We hold industry and governments to account, and defend everyone’s right to a healthy world. From our offices in Europe, Asia and the USA we shape, implement and enforce the law, to build a future for our planet in which people and nature can thrive together.