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EU proposes fines, jail sentences for illegal waste shipments - extended

European Union regulators proposed fines and prison sentences for the illegal shipment of waste, reviving a push for EU-wide criminal penalties to protect the environment.

The European Commission's draft law would introduce fines and jail times for „serious environmental offenses” such as the August 2006 alleged dumping of toxins in the Ivory Coast by a Dutch-chartered vessel. The legislation would also cover unlawful activities including radiation pollution, trade in ozone-depleting substances and damage to protected habitats. „We cannot allow safe havens of environmental crime inside the EU,” Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini said in a statement released today in Brussels. „In many member states, the levels of sanctions are inadequate.” The commission, the 27-nation EU's regulatory arm, has been emboldened by a 2005 European Court of Justice ruling that curtailed the right of member states to act on their own over criminal sanctions tied to EU environmental protection. The court struck down a law that governments approved by skirting the EU's normal decision-making procedures and blocking a 2001 commission proposal.

The commission is also responding to the August incident in the Ivory Coast, where several people died and thousands sought medical help after the Probo Koala oil tanker allegedly unloaded as much as 500 metric tons of toxic waste in the city of Abidjan. The vessel, chartered by Dutch commodity trader Trafigura Beheer BV, was detained in Estonia the following month because toxins were found on board. Trafigura, which is currently fighting a lawsuit over the spill in London, said on September 24 that the material wasn't toxic and was given to a certified Ivorian company for disposal. „Environmental legislation needs to be backed up by criminal sanctions,” Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said at a Brussels press conference today. „Environmental crimes can have devastating effects.” The draft legislation, which needs the support of EU governments and the European Parliament, would set minimum levels of maximum penalties including fines for companies ranging from €300,000 ($390,000) to €750,000 and prison sentences from one year to five years. The offenses would have to be committed intentionally or with „serious negligence.”

France, Italy, Slovenia, Malta and Cyprus would have to upgrade their standards the most as a result of the proposal, according to Dimas. Nations including the UK, the Netherlands, Spain and Poland have „medium” standards by comparison and countries such as Sweden, Germany and Belgium have the highest norms, he said. In addition, some countries refuse to recognize all of the offenses covered by the proposal as crimes, said Dimas. This is the case with Spain and Portugal for illegal shipments of waste, Italy for unlawful damage to protected habitats and Austria for unlawful trade in or use of ozone-depleting substances, he said. The commission initiative may run into fresh resistance from EU lawmakers concerned it would give the bloc too much control over member states. The commission „is using the environmental agenda as an excuse to massively increase its powers at the expense of national parliaments,” Syed Kamall, a UK member of the European Parliament's largest political group, the European People's Party, said in a statement. „This is a very slippery slope.”

The commission is acting within its rights, said Michael Renouf, a partner and European environmental-law specialist at Berwin Leighton Paisner LLP. „There's a solid legal basis for what they've proposed,” Renouf said by telephone from London. „There's an existing body of European legislation that establishes environmental obligations.” Frattini said the commission was making „prudent use of the principles” set by the 2005 EU court ruling. Since then, the commission has proposed EU-wide criminal penalties in one other regulatory field - goods counterfeiting - and said a similar approach could be taken in as many as seven more areas. The draft environmental law would also target the discharge of materials that causes death or serious injury to any person; the unlawful production of nuclear materials; the illegal import of waste; the illegal operation of a plant in which dangerous activity is carried out; and illegal damage to protected plants and animals. The draft makes no explicit mention of oil spills, which the commission intends to cover by proposing new EU measures on ship pollution later this year. National governments also skirted EU decision-making norms when they agreed in 2005 on measures to enforce the law against ship pollution - a move also being challenged in court by the commission. (Bloomberg)