(CN) - An Italian law exempting the new owners of polluted property from paying for cleanup complies with the EU's environmental directive, Europe's highest court ruled Wednesday.
Environmental authorities in Tuscany ordered the new owners of land that was badly contaminated by an insecticide and herbicide plant to pay for cleanup costs, even though they were not responsible for the pollution.
The owners appealed to the Italian Council of State, which held that national law does not allow authorities to require landowners to pay for environmental damage they didn't cause. However, the court asked the European Court of Justice to weigh in on whether that exemption complies with the EU's "polluter pays" principle.
In a ruling handed down Wednesday, the Luxembourg-based court held that the "polluter pays" principle is aimed at EU-level actions and can't be applied to individuals by national authorities.
However, the court said that European environmental law focuses on who caused the pollution rather than who currently owns the polluted land.
"The operator is not required to bear the costs of preventive or remedial action taken pursuant to that directive if he can prove that the environmental damage was caused by a third party and occurred despite the fact that appropriate safety measures were in place, or resulted from an order or instruction emanating from a public authority," the court wrote.
"Where no causal link can be established between the environmental damage and the activity of the operator, the situation falls to be governed by national law," the court continued. "In the present case, it can be seen from the documents before the court and from the very wording of the question referred that the respondents in the main proceedings did not contribute to the occurrence of the environmental damage at issue, which is a matter for the referring court to confirm."
And while member states can adopt more stringent rules to prevent and remedy environmental damage by holding successive landowners responsible for cleanup costs, current Italian law bars doing so - except to reimburse authorities up to the value of the land in question, the court concluded.
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