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Press release: 9 November 2020
Lawyers at ClientEarth have filed for an injunction as authorities in Antwerp open the way for an unnecessary plastics plant expansion in the city’s iconic port.
Together with 13 environmental organisations, the environmental law charity has launched an urgent legal bid to block the clearance of woodland necessary for the construction of two industrial units, which will make the raw materials for plastic. The €3 billion project is petrochemicals giant Ineos’s biggest investment to date.
By filing for an injunction, the environmental groups are seeking to prevent the felling of the forest as an interim measure before submitting a judicial appeal.
Ineos has been chasing this deforestation permit despite still lacking full approval for the project. Deforesting before the rest of the project is given the green light could result in the trees being cut down and wildlife and habitats being destroyed for nothing.
This action is the latest step in a legal campaign by the groups against the plastics plant expansion – known as “Project One” – which they consider both environmentally destructive and legally problematic. ClientEarth’s initial legal case, which has delayed the project, was based on the Flemish authorities’ failure to fully assess the environmental impacts of the project – a clear breach of EU and national laws.
Plastics refineries use oil or shale gas as their feedstock, meaning that any plastics plant is a major climate culprit. These impacts have not been assessed as part of the planning process. As the EU moves to crack down on both carbon emissions and plastic waste, allowing these plants to be built on Brussels’ doorstep is a major misstep.
ClientEarth lawyer Maria Jolie Veder said: “This project blatantly disregards national and EU environmental law by slicing up the permit. This masks the devastating and far-reaching consequences the project will have – from the hugely carbon-intensive manufacturing process to the inevitable plastic waste from its end products.
“The Flemish authorities’ decision to welcome yet more plastics refineries directly contradicts its own commitments to reduce plastic pollution and tackle climate change. This project will only exacerbate the climate and pollution crises.
“We will continue to take legal action to prevent this project from going ahead to protect people and the planet from the irreversible damage it would cause.”
The Port of Antwerp is immediately beside a Natura 2000 site, assigned by the EU to protect habitats and wildlife. Existing plastics plants in the port are already leaking lentil-sized pellets – the raw materials for manufacturing plastics, known as ‘nurdles’. The nurdles build up in the soil and can be carried downstream. These gravely compromise habitats and threaten endangered bird species as they frequently eat the fish egg-shaped pellets.
The ramifications of a likely increase in the Port’s plastic pellet pollution, both at a local and global scale, have also not been considered in the planning documents submitted to the Flemish government.
The problem is also not restricted to Belgium. Due to its location on the national border, the environmental effects of Project One will likely impact the Netherlands. However, as the project is being evaluated in a fragmented way, the authorities and the public concerned in the Netherlands are not receiving sufficient information to enable them to effectively participate in the approval process – which they have the right to do under international law.
Hanneke Smulders from Dutch nature association Natuurbeschermingsvereniging De Steltkluut said: “Our volunteers have been able to observe first-hand the ongoing environmental pollution that plastic nurdles are causing on the shores of the river Western Scheldt and in protected Natura 2000 sites in the Netherlands where lots of birds come to forage.”
Project One will not only have huge climate and environmental repercussions, but also faces business risks. A global regulatory clampdown on plastic waste and a shift to decarbonisation means that the plant is at risk of becoming a stranded asset as plastic demand stalls and the market for shale gas unravels. With the Flemish government providing a financial guarantee for the plant, the organisations have raised further concerns.
Frank Vanaerschot from ethical finance experts FairFin said: “Going for Project One would not only mean funnelling billions into a dead-end street of further climate change and biodiversity destruction. The government’s promise to guarantee the plant would also mean that hundreds of millions of taxpayers' money will be used to shoulder risks private investors are not willing to take for good reasons.
“The oversupply of plastics, the project's incompatibility with the need for stricter measures for the use of plastics, the volatility of the shale gas market, and the over-indebtedness of Ineos are sizeable economic risks. The only sound long-term economic decision is to cancel the project and to put these billions into more future-proof industrial projects.”
Environmental organisations that have joined ClientEarth in filing for the injunction are: Natuurbeschermingsvereniging De Steltkluut, Klimaatzaak, Greenpeace Belgium, StRaten Generaal, Fairfin, BOS+, Recycling Network Benelux, Grootouders voor het Klimaat, Climaxi, Bond Beter Leefmilieu (BBL), WWF Belgium, Zero Waste Europe and Gallifrey Foundation.
The planned plastics installation – known as “Project One” – consists of two new plants: an ethane cracker, which converts ethane to ethylene, and a plant that converts propane to propylene. Ethylene and propylene are both raw materials for making plastics.
Up to 167,000 tonnes of pre-production plastic pellets are estimated to leak into the environment in Europe every year, making pellets the second largest source of primary microplastic pollution.
Due to the scope and nature of Project One, banks and investors involved in the project require a form of financial guarantee to cover any potential risks that arise. In this case, it is believed that the Flemish government is providing a governmental guarantee of €250-500 million.
Basis of ClientEarth’s legal challenges
Under EU law, Project One (Ineos’s plan to expand its existing plastics plant with two further installations) should have been rigorously assessed before the project was approved, to make sure its full environmental impact has been properly taken into account.
However, Ineos split the project approval up into three separate Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) – one for deforesting the area needed for the plant, and one for each of the refinery units themselves.
This ‘salami-slicing’ of the permit may make it easier for authorities to approve it as only one stage of the project is examined at a time. This approach may also obscure the total impact of the project, which is illegal under EU law.
Therefore, in 2019, ClientEarth submitted an administrative appeal against the EIA for deforestation, asking that a comprehensive EIA be carried out to reflect the full impact of Project One.
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.
Natuurbeschermingsvereniging De Steltkluut is an association of volunteers, founded in 1956, with the goal of promoting the correct management of nature, environment and landscape in the interest of humans, fauna and flora in the Dutch region Oost-Zeeuws-Vlaanderen.
FairFin strives for a new financial system that is transparent, fair and democratic and can be a lever for a social and sustainable world.