France Racked Up 9 Years of Pollution Infractions

Demonstrators block a motorway exit to protest fuel tax in Marseille, southern France, on Nov. 17, 2018.  (AP Photo/Claude Paris)

LUXEMBOURG (CN) — Europe’s highest court clobbered France on Thursday for nearly a decade’s worth of what it called systematic and persistent pollution violations.

A toxic gas linked to diesel engines, nitrogen dioxide is one of the main components of smog. Since 2010, EU law has set a nitrogen dioxide limit of 40 micrograms per cubic meter for member states. With France unable to meet compliance deadlines, the European Commission initiated infringement proceedings.

“France does not dispute the fact that there have been persistent exceedances of the hourly and annual limit values of nitrogen dioxide in the zones and agglomerations  which are the subject of the action brought by the commission,” the European Court of Justice said in a statement Thursday. “However, France disputes the allegedly systematic nature of those exceedances.

“In today’s judgment, the court states that the fact of exceeding the nitrogen dioxide limit values in ambient air is, in itself, sufficient for a finding that there has been a failure to fulfill the obligation laid down in [EU law].”

A copy of the ruling is not available in English.

The court called it irrelevant that France’s violations could stem more from what it termed “structural difficulties” than from negligence.

“France manifestly did not adopt, in a timely manner, appropriate measures to ensure that the exceedance period would be kept as short as possible,” the court’s statement continues. “Thus, the exceedance of the limit values at issue during seven consecutive years remained systematic and persistent in that member state, notwithstanding France’s obligation to take all appropriate and effective measures to comply with the requirement that the exceedance period be kept as short as possible.”

In addition to nitrogen dioxide, other major air pollutants including carbon monoxide, lead and toxic heavy metals were given limits in the EU’s 2008 Ambient Air Quality Directive.

Germany and the United Kingdom have faced the commission’s wrath over pollution as well, with the diesel-gate emissions scandal having brought tensions to a boiling point in 2015. In March this year, the commission filed a lawsuit that says Italy had not met nitrogen dioxide emission levels and also that it failed to meet drinking water standards.

An EU report released this month found that poor air quality was the cause of 412,000 premature deaths in Europe in 2016, the most recent year for which data is available.

“Air pollution is currently the most important environmental risk to human health,” the report’s author, air-quality expert Alberto González Ortiz, wrote.

A dozen regions of France are identified in Thursday’s ruling for violations of the NO2 limit value. They are Marseille, Toulon, Paris, Auvergne-Clermont-Ferrand , Montpellier, Toulouse Midi-Pyrenees, Reims Champagne-Ardenne, Grenoble Rhône-Alpes, Strasbourg, Lyon Rhône-Alpes, the Arve Rhône-Alpes Valley and Nice. The Thursday ruling is final, so France cannot appeal.

(Courthouse News reporter Molly Quell is based in the European Union.)

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