|Author (Person)||Frost, Laurence|
|Series Title||European Voice|
|Series Details||Vol.7, No.44, 29.11.01, p24|
COMPANIES could face tough fines for polluting even if they comply with existing laws, under plans to be tabled next week by EU environment chief Margot Wallström.
The environmental liability directive, designed to give the Union's "polluter pays" principle legal force, would allow governments to recover the costs of clean-up operations from companies that cause environmental damage.
It singles out high-risk industries such as oil, chemicals and biotechnology for "strict liability", holding them responsible for inadvertent ecological damage even when no fault or negligence can be proved.
Business leaders have already begun campaigning against the draft directive, fearing their firms could face massive bills if the negative ecological effects of their activities are only discovered years down the line.
"It's not fair to put all the risk for unknown future damage entirely on the shoulders of the producer," said Erik Berggren of EU employers' organisation UNICE. "The existing legislation is a careful balance between environmental and economic interests - if you're going to hold people liable for these actions you are circumventing the legislation."
Frits Bolkestein, the single market commissioner, supports industry concerns that it could be difficult to insure against the unlimited liability imposed on companies. His services have proposed strengthening the "regulatory compliance" defence, which would protect a firm from fines in cases where it had followed environmental laws.
But Wallström is determined to resist any watering down of the directive, which has been planned by the EU executive for almost 15 years. "You have to remember that these costs won't simply disappear if they are not recovered from business," said Pia Ahrenkilde, spokeswoman for the Swedish commissioner. "Somebody has to pay them, and we believe it should be the polluting company rather than society at large."
The question of financial liability for environmental catastrophes is central to the debate on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), with green campaigners insisting that biotech firms should pay to clean up any ecological damage caused by their release.
But companies say they should not be expected to take full responsibility for releasing them despite the lack of scientific knowledge about the consequences. "Society is also benefiting from the innovation," said Berggren, "so there's a better balance to be struck".
Under the directive, EU countries would nominate competent authorities to enforce the new rules. These government agencies would undertake investigations on their own initiative and upon receiving complaints from green groups or affected citizens.
The government would also be forced to foot the cleanup bill in instances where the polluter could not be traced or no longer existed - an element of the proposal that could undermine vital support from member states when the draft directive comes before the Council of Ministers.
Companies could face tough fines for polluting even if they comply with existing laws, under plans drawn up by Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström.