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Brussels, 27 April 2007

Environment: Liability Directive ensures polluters pay

Important EU legislation laying down liability rules for damage to the environment comes into force on 30 April. The groundbreaking new directive, the result of discussions which started in the late 1980s, is the first EU law specifically based on the "polluter pays principle" set out in the EC treaty. It will ensure that in future environmental damage in the EU is prevented or remedied, and that those who cause it are held responsible. Environmental damage includes damage to water resources, natural habitats, animals and plants as well as contamination of land which causes significant harm to human health. Member States are required to transpose the directive into their national law by 30 April, but to date only Italy, Latvia and Lithuania have done so.

Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said: “The idea that the polluter must pay is a cornerstone of EU policy and with this legislation we are putting it into practice. The environmental liability directive will provide a strong incentive to prevent damage from happening at all, and enables governments to seek redress from the culprit when serious damage does occur. I am very concerned that only three Member States have transposed this vital legislation so far. If the others do not follow suit very soon the Commission will have to consider starting legal action."

Main features of the Directive

The directive establishes a framework based on environmental liability to ensure that environmental damage is prevented or remedied. Environmental damage includes damage to species and natural habitats protected at EU level under the 1979 directive on the conservation of wild birds[1] and the 1992 directive on the conservation of natural habitats[2], damage to waters covered by the 2000 Water Framework Directive[3], as well as land contamination which causes significant risk of harming human health. There will be no retrospective effect.

The parties potentially liable for the costs of preventing or remedying the environmental damage are the operators of the risky or potentially risky activities listed in the environmental liability directive. These include activities releasing heavy metals into water or into the air, installations producing dangerous chemicals, landfill sites and incineration plants. Other economic operators may also be liable for the costs of preventing or remedying damage to protected species and natural habitats, but only if they are found to be at fault or negligent.

Public authorities will play an important role in the liability scheme. It will be their role to ensure that responsible operators undertake themselves, or finance, the necessary preventive or remedial measures.

Public interest groups, such as non-governmental organisations, will be allowed to require public authorities to act, if this is necessary, and to challenge their decisions before the courts, if those decisions are illegal.

Where damage or a threat of damage may affect more than one member state, the member states concerned must cooperate on the preventive or remedial action to be taken.

As the directive does not oblige operators to ensure coverage of their potential liabilities by appropriate financial security products, such as insurance, Member States are required to encourage the development of (such) instruments allowing for financial security and their use by the operators. The Commission will address this issue in a report once the directive has been operating for three years, while a general report on the implementation of the directive is due by 2014.


The principle according to which the polluter pays for environmental damage caused (the "polluter pays" principle) is set out in the Treaty establishing the European Community. Discussions on how to address environmental liability at EU level began in the late 1980s and led to publication by the Commission of a Green Paper in 1993 and a White Paper in 2000. Both papers gave rise to extensive consultation and discussions with civil society and all stakeholders concerned. The Commission subsequently came forward with a proposal for a directive on environmental liability in January 2002. The European Parliament and the Council adopted the directive on 21 April 2004, and Member States have until 30 April 2007 to transpose it.

See also MEMO/07/157

For more information on the subject, see:

[1] Directive 79/409/EEC

[2] Directive 92/43/EEC

[3] Directive 2000/60/EC

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