ClientEarth and Greenpeace Romania have written to the European Commission detailing the pitiful fines issued by Romanian authorities to coal plant operators breaching EU industrial pollution laws and calling on the Commission to act.
The fines, which in some cases are the same as those that could be issued to a restaurant for allowing diners to smoke indoors, are part of Romania’s systemic failure to set and enforce appropriate penalties.
Industries that breach EU industrial pollution laws must face financial or other penalties for operating illegally. Under the Industrial Emissions Directive (IED), national governments are required to adopt “effective, “proportionate” and “dissuasive” penalties for operators that fail to comply with the law.
In Romania, the fines imposed on coal plant operators for breaking the law are too low to deter them from operating illegally. For example, for coal plant operators, whose annual turnover is typically between €86 and €400 million, the fine for not having a permit is capped at a one-off payment that ranges from €6,440 to €12,880. In addition, if the operator pays the fine within the first 15 days, the fine will be reduced to just €3,220.
In Spain and Greece, by contrast, power plant operators can face penalties up to €2,000,000 for not having a permit.
Environmental permits regulate all aspects of a coal plants’ operation and a plant cannot operate without one. Permits limit the amount of harmful pollutants coal plants can emit, which is essential to protect the health of people and the environment. Poor air quality in particular, is linked to chronic and acute respiratory diseases, and increasing the risk of premature death.
ClientEarth lawyer Dominique Doyle said: “Penalties imposed on coal plants operating without a valid environmental permit, as well as those breaching other industrial emissions, amount to a meaningless and totally ineffective sanctioning regime, effectively encouraging operators to continue breaking the law.
“Romania is one of the EU’s biggest polluters and currently holds the EU Council Presidency, yet nearly half of its primarily state-owned coal plants have been functioning without environmental permits for years. Romania has enormous potential for a more sustainable energy future but instead of investing in cleaner energy alternatives, the country continues to allow its coal fleet to breach pollution laws with near impunity.”
National authorities are unwilling to impose additional sanctions on plants already fined. Currently, three out of eight of Romania’s coal plants have operated without a valid environmental permit since 2013, but have only been penalised once. Penalties could be effective and would dissuade plants from operating illegally if authorities applied multiple fines.
Romanian courts have also been reluctant to uphold sanctions against illegally operating plants, contributing to the systemic problem.
Under national legislation, installations operating without a permit must immediately suspend their activities. However, this suspension is delayed if the operator challenges the sanction in court. Coal plant operators therefore take advantage of the courts to prolong the case over several years to ensure their activities are never suspended.
Greenpeace Romania campaigner, Cosmin Pleşcan said: “This is a systemic issue – the legislation fails to set penalties appropriately, the administration does not enforce them properly and the judiciary fails to prove its efficiency in the cases brought before the national courts. EU law cannot be enforced in a system like this, which is why we are bringing this issue to the attention of the Commission.”
Romania is already facing an infringement proceeding from the Commission for its lack of valid environmental permits.
Doyle added: “Although this infringement launched by the Commission in 2017 is welcome, it only addresses the symptom and not the cause. Industrial polluters are subject to ever-stricter anti-pollution rules but if Romania does not introduce effective, proportionate and dissuasive penalties, there will be no imperative for power plants to comply with the law now or in the future.”
The Commission will review ClientEarth and Greenpeace’s complaint and decide whether to take legal action against Romania.
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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, New York City 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.
Greenpeace is an independent international organisation, present in over 50 countries around the world, acting to change attitudes and behaviours, to protect and preserve the environment and to promote peace.