Photo: Greg McNevin

Environmental groups to go to court to defend EU limits on coal pollution

Environmental groups have taken legal action to defend new EU limits for harmful pollution from coal power plants.

Stricter limits on emissions of dust, sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and mercury were adopted by the European Commission last year following a vote by Member States.

But the limits for NOx and mercury are now being challenged by coal lobby group Euracoal on behalf of the German coal industry in a case before the European Courts.

Members of the Europe Beyond Coal campaign, the European Environmental Bureau and ClientEarth have applied to join this case to help defend the rules.

According to figures from Europe Beyond Coal, pollution from European coal plants is linked to around 20,000 premature deaths, 458,000 asthma attacks in children and more than €50 billion of health costs every year.

Jeremy Wates, Secretary-General of the EEB said:

“Air pollution from coal knows no borders. Emissions from one country are a problem for people and the environment across Europe. It is essential and inevitable that we move Europe beyond coal and the sooner we do it the better for our health, our climate and our environment.”

Despite the high health and environmental costs to people breathing polluted air, the coal industry lobbyists that filed the case claim that the new measures “disproportionately burden the installation operators”.

The operators supporting the case are all owners of German lignite, or ‘brown coal’, plants and mines. Lignite is a particularly polluting form of coal. Proven technology exists to reduce emissions, but its installation and operation is likely to make many plants uneconomical.

The coal industry claims that the limits set for NOx, which causes respiratory illnesses, and mercury, which is a dangerous neurotoxin, are too strict. They argue that reducing their pollution to the extent required for these pollutants is not economically viable.

But ClientEarth lawer Sam Bright told META:

“These updated standards are essential and this challenge by the coal industry is an affront to human health and the environment. Euracoal is seeking a licence to pollute for its members, swimming against the current of a cleaner energy era that does not revolve around fleets of heavily polluting power plants.”

While the case contests only the limits imposed on emissions of NOx and mercury from lignite coal plants, it nevertheless includes a call for the entire decision to be annulled. Because the adopted standards apply to around 2,900 large combustion plants, burning various types of fuels, the coal lobby’s case therefore threatens updated environmental standards for a wide-range of industry.

Details of the case were first published in the Official Journal of the European Union in January with applicant parties including major players in the German lignite industry. The European Commission is listed as the defendant and is accused by the applicants of breaching procedural rules ahead of the adoption of the new rules. The EEB and ClientEarth have applied to intervene in the case to support the Commission’s defence.

Air pollution has been the subject of increased political attention recently after Poland was found guilty of failing to act quickly enough to clean up its toxic air by the European Court of Justice and nine other coal-burning countries face similar legal action next month.

Legal limits on air pollution are currently breached in 130 cities in 23 of the 28 EU member states and court cases in the UK and Germany have focused on the measures national governments are taking to tackle the problem.

While inner-city breaches are most often linked to dirty diesel cars and low-quality fuels being burned to heat houses, giant coal-fired power plants provide a baseload of pollution across Europe.

Read more

Environmental groups take legal action to defend new EU rules from coal industry attack (EEB Press Release, 28 February 2018)

ClientEarth moves to defend new EU rules from “inexcusable” coal industry attack (ClientEarth Press Release, 28 February 2018)