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Commission starts legal action against UK over airborne particles

The European Commission has today started infringement proceedings against the United Kingdom for failing to comply with the EU's air quality standard for dangerous airborne particles known as PM10. These particles, emitted mainly by industry, traffic and domestic heating, can cause asthma, cardiovascular problems, lung cancer and premature death. The Commission's action follows the entry into force last June of the new EU air quality directive, which allows Member States to request, under certain conditions and for specific parts of the country, limited extra time to meet the PM10 standard in force since 2005.

Stavros Dimas, European Commissioner for Environment, said: “Air pollution has serious impacts on health and compliance with the standards must be our utmost priority. While the new directive on ambient air quality and cleaner air for Europe allows time extensions for compliance if certain conditions are met, these must not delay measures to reduce emissions. It is also essential that where time extensions are not applicable the standards are fully respected. The flexibility given to Member States will therefore be complemented by strict enforcement action by the Commission.”

First warning letter
Following an information request sent to Member States last June (see IP/08/1112), the Commission has sent first warning letters to 10 Member States that have not yet achieved compliance with the PM10 limit values in force since 1 January 2005. The Member States concerned are Cyprus, Estonia, Germany, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the UK. The infringements addressed in these letters affect 83 million people in 132 different air quality zones.

These Member States have not notified requests for extra time to meet the standards in all air quality zones where the PM10 limit values are being exceeded. The new Air Quality directive (see MEMO07/571 and IP/08/570), which entered into force on 11 June 2008, allows Member States to request limited time extensions to meet the PM10 standard under certain conditions. Time extensions will apply only in those air quality zones for which it is demonstrated that an effort was made to achieve the limit values in 2005 but that compliance was not possible due to specific external circumstances. Member States must also demonstrate, through the establishment of an air quality plan for each zone, that compliance will be achieved by expiry of the new deadline.

Eleven Member States have so far notified requests for time extensions for all the zones. The Commission is currently assessing whether these requests satisfy the conditions for extensions and will decide within nine months of receiving the notifications whether to raise objections or not. Four Member States – Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain – have not notified requests for all the air quality zones that exceed the limit values.

Several other Member States have informed the Commission that they are drafting air quality plans for non-compliant zones and intend to submit time extension requests in the coming months.

Bulgaria and Romania reported exceedances for the first time in 2008. They have been reminded of the obligation to comply with the standards and have been asked to submit a time extension notification before 31 March 2009 for their zones in exceedance.

Four Member States are not affected by the infringements or notifications. Finland and Lithuania have demonstrated that the exceedances are due to winter sanding of roads – which is explicitly allowed by the directive – while Ireland and Luxembourg – alone among Member States – have not reported any exceedances.

PM10 standards

The PM10 standard consists of two limit values:

– a concentration of 50 micrograms (µg)/m3, measured over 24 hours; this can be exceeded on no more than 35 days per calendar year

– a concentration of 40 µg/m3, measured over one calendar year; no exceedance is allowed.

Legal Process

Article 226 of the Treaty gives the Commission powers to take legal action against a Member State that is not respecting its obligations.

If the Commission considers that there may be an infringement of EU law that warrants the opening of an infringement procedure, it addresses a “Letter of Formal Notice” (first written warning) to the Member State concerned, requesting it to submit its observations within a specified period, usually two months.

In the light of the reply or absence of a reply from the Member State concerned, the Commission may decide to address a “Reasoned Opinion” (final written warning) to the Member State. This clearly and definitively sets out the reasons why it considers there to have been an infringement of EU law, and calls upon the Member State to comply within a specified period, usually two months.

If the Member State fails to comply with the Reasoned Opinion, the Commission may decide to bring the case before the Court of Justice. Where the Court of Justice finds that the Treaty has been infringed, the offending Member State is required to take the measures necessary to conform.

Article 228 of the Treaty gives the Commission power to act against a Member State that does not comply with a previous judgement of the European Court of Justice. The Article also allows the Commission to ask the Court to impose a financial penalty on the Member State concerned.

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