(CN) - Europe's highest court ordered Italy and Greece to pay $50 million and $12.4 million respectively - plus penalties - for not complying with orders to properly handle landfills and hazardous waste.
In the case of Italy, the European Court of Justice found in 2007 that the nation had "persistently" failed to comply with the EU's waste management laws. In 2013, EU regulators took Italy to court again after discovering that 218 disposal sites remained out of compliance with both European law and the earlier court orders.
Many of the 218 sites operated without a permit, while 16 contained hazardous waste that should not have been there. Italy had also failed to close another five landfills as promised, investigators found.
While Italy has since made progress toward compliance, the EU high court held Tuesday that simply closing landfills or covering them with dirt and rubble does not satisfy Europe's waste-management laws. Even worse, Italy "was fully aware of the threat that those landfills pose to human health and the environment," the court wrote in its 12-page opinion.
"Suffice it to state that the Italian Republic has not contended - still less proved - that, by the deferred deadline, it had exhaustively recorded and identified, in accordance with waste management law, all the hazardous waste discharged in the landfills referred to by the commission," the Luxembourg-based court wrote. "On that date, therefore, the Italian Republic still failed to ensure compliance with the obligation arising under that provision."
The court continued: "In the present case, it should be observed that the Italian Republic in no way contends that conditioning plans for the sites in question were filed with the competent authority. The Italian Republic states merely that, by the deferred deadline, all the landfills to which the infringement of waste-management law relates had been closed down. However, as can be seen from that member state's pleadings, some of those landfills were opened without a permit and no formal closing-down measure was adopted for those sites. In those circumstances, the inevitable conclusion is that, on that date, the Italian Republic also still failed to fulfill its obligations."
In addition to a lump-sum fine of nearly $50 million, Italy will also pay penalties of $53 million for every six months that goes by without full compliance - with reductions each time a landfill is closed, the court ordered.
Similarly, Greece failed to comply with a 2005 court order to manage its waste legally. In that case, regulators discovered 1,125 illegal landfills littering Greek territory that the nation estimated wouldn't be closed until 2008.
However, the commission found in 2009 that the landfills still hadn't been closed. By 2013, regulators decided that structural problems in Greece - the sheer number of illegal dump sites and a lack of suitable landfill space - demanded court intervention.
Given that 70 illegal landfills remain in Greece and another 223 closed sites require extensive cleanup, the EU court ordered Greece to pay a lump-sum $12.4 million fine - despite the Greek government's suggestion for a wait-and-see approach.
"The finding that the Hellenic Republic had not adopted all the measures necessary for compliance with the judgment in Commission v. Greece by the reference date of Dec. 29, 2010 - more than five years after the date of delivery of that judgment - is sufficient, in principle, to justify the imposition of financial penalties in the present case, notwithstanding the existence of a program, not yet been fully implemented, to close down and clean up the illegal landfills at issue," the court wrote in a 10-page opinion.
While acknowledging Greece's aforementioned program to tackle its illegal waste problem, the high court noted that its 2005 judgment commanded actual cleanup and not mere planning.
"The fact, if it were established, that the competent authorities have adopted at the administrative level all the measures necessary to eliminate the infringement is not sufficient to preclude the imposition of a penalty in the present case, given that some of the illegal landfills at issue remain in operation and/or have not been cleaned up," the court wrote.
In light of the Greek government's progress toward full compliance, the nation will pay a considerably smaller penalty than Italy - nearly $18 million for every six months that illegal landfills remain open. But like Italy, the penalty will be reduced for every dump that is closed down and cleaned up, the court held.
The waste-management practices of both nations has stoked the ire of the EU court before. In 2013, a lower court ruled that regulators can withhold regional development funds from Italy as punishment for not collecting garbage safely.
And earlier this year, the EU high court found that Greece turned a blind eye to the uncontrolled management of a landfill site on the island of Zakinthos - leading to the destruction sea turtle habitat in the island's marine park.
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