EU Justices Bolster National Courts’ Authority to Enforce Air Quality Rules

Brussels, the capital city and largest metropolitan area of Belgium. (Photo by Jean-Pol Grandmont via Wikipedia Commons)

(CN) – National courts of European Union member states have the authority to review where air quality sampling stations are placed for the purposes of determining whether plans to curb air pollution are adequate, the European Court of Justice ruled Wednesday.

The preliminary ruling by the EU high court stems from a dispute between environmentalists and residents of Brussels, Belgium, and the region’s air quality management agency over the adequacy of plans to fight air pollution in the area.

The court hearing the case asked the EU court to weigh in on whether it has the authority to review where measuring stations are placed, and if so whether the measurements taken from each station can be averaged and that number used to determine if air quality standards have been achieved.

In its 15-page ruling, the Luxembourg-based court noted EU law has detailed rules regarding the use and location of air quality measurement stations and also gives citizens the right to challenge member states over their air quality standards. Accordingly, national courts have the authority to hear the cases and determine whether the standards are being met, the EU court said.

And while air quality managers have discretion in the placement of measuring stations, that discretion is not exempt from judicial review to ensure the stations are placed in a way to effectively combat air pollution – and that air quality managers are working to do the same, the court said.

As for the Belgian court’s second question, the EU high court ruled against averaging the results of sampling stations.

“The determination of the average of the values measured at all sampling points in a zone or agglomeration does not provide a valid indication as to the population’s exposure to pollutants. In particular, such an average does not make it possible to determine the level of exposure of the population in general, since that level must be assessed using sampling points set up specifically for that purpose,” the court wrote.

The court noted the purpose of the EU rules on air quality is to protect human health.

“In accordance with that objective, it is necessary to determine the actual air pollution to which the population or part of it is exposed and to ensure that appropriate measures are taken to combat the sources of such pollution. Consequently, the fact that a limit value has been exceeded at a single sampling point is sufficient to trigger the obligation to draw up an air quality plan,” the court wrote.

It is up to the Belgian court to decide the case within the parameters of the preliminary ruling, which is binding on that court.


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