EXCLUSIVE / The Belgian government has failed to protect workers in Brussels’ EU quarter from deadly traffic fumes, according to legal action filed against it by the European Commission.
Leaked documents obtained by EURACTIV.com reveal that Belgium is accused of breaking EU law by hiding the true scale of Brussels air pollution problem and breaching air quality limits.
It failed to report data from two of the most polluted city roads in Belgium, Rue Belliard and the Arts-Loi crossroads, exposing people near them to unacceptable levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2)
Rue Belliard and Rue de la Loi are two of the major arteries into Brussels’ Euro quarter, where the European Commission, Parliament and Council buildings are located.
NO2 can cause a litany of respiratory problems, inflaming the lining of the lungs, and can lead to hospitalisation and even death. It is specifically caused by diesel transport, and hit the headlines in the wake of the Volkswagen emissions test scandal.
“Without urgent action at local, national and EU level, people working in the heart of the European quarter will be breathing toxic and illegal levels of pollution into the next decade,” said Alan Andrews, a lawyer with NGO ClientEarth.
“By failing to report data from Brussels’ most polluted roads, the Belgian government is hiding the true scale of the city’s air pollution problem from both the Commission, and perhaps more importantly, the public. We have a right to breathe clean air and the right to know when our governments are failing to protect us.”
Monitoring stations that don’t work
The EU’s Ambient Air Quality Directive insists that monitoring stations are put where the pollution is heaviest.
But the Belgian government has not submitted NO2 figures for Rue Belliard since 2013, and not for Arts-Loi since 2008.
The 2008 Arts-Loi figures show that NO2 levels were as high as 100 mg per metre cube – more than double the level of acceptable risk under EU law and World Health Organisation guidance. Those rules limit levels to 40mg per metre cube.
In 2012 and 2013, there was a concentration of 60mg per metre cube on Rue Belliard. But according to European Commission’s letter of formal notice to the Belgian government, no 2014 data for that station was recorded because it wasn’t working.
The letter of formal notice is the first step in infringement proceedings. Such proceedings are lawsuits brought by the Commission against member states for breaking EU law. They can ultimately result in large fines at the European Court of Justice.
According to ClientEarth, an environmental NGO of lawyers, the Belgian government could also face legal action from parties other than the executive.
The European Commission letter also criticises Belgium for not having a plan in place to reduce the NO2 levels. EU rules insist that countries have a strategy to cut high level of fumes “as soon as possible.”
Belgium’s plan, rejected for not being good enough, would mean it would not comply with the law until 2022.
Among those exposed to the fumes are European Parliament and EU Council negotiators working on the draft revisions to the National Emissions Ceiling (NEC) Directive.
They are set to meet with Commission officials on 8 June to try and hammer out a deal on the proposed new law, which narrowly escaped being axed under the executive’s better regulations strategy.
The revised NEC Directive puts controls on different types of air pollution in each member state. Its overarching goal is to cut the number of premature deaths – estimated as 400,000 a year in the EU – caused by air pollution by half by 2030.
“Ironically, this revelation comes just as EU officials are in the middle of crucial negotiations on new air pollution laws. We urgently need tough new pollution targets in the revised NEC Directive to safeguard public health in cities throughout Europe,” said ClientEarth’s Andrews.
The executive said, “Exceedances of the NO2 levels set by EU law on air quality occur in more than 130 European cities. The Commission has opened infringement proceedings against nine member states in this area.
“Compliance with air quality standards remains critical to safeguard public health. Action is necessary not only at EU level but at local, regional and national levels.”
The Belgian government was asked to comment yesterday. This story will be updated when a response is received.
Air pollution has different particulate matter (PM) components – smoke, dirt and dust form coarse particles known as PM10 and metals and toxic exhaust from smelting, vehicle exhaust, power plants and refuse burning forming fine particles called PM2.5.
The 2008 Air Quality Directive aimed at streamlining and tightening EU legislation dealing with pollution and air standards. It is now under review.
The directive obliges member states must cut exposure to fine particulate matter by an average of 20% by 2020, based on 2010 levels.
Many of the policies grow out of a 2005 strategy on air pollution, which sought to cut sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions by 82%, nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions by 60%, volatile organic compounds by 51%, ammonia (NH3) by 27%, and primary fine particulates by 59% compared to the levels of 2000.
Health advocates say the cost of cutting emissions through better smokestack scrubbers, cleaner-burning vehicles and a shift to renewable fuels would be more than offset by savings in treating complications of bad air.
Part of the package is the Nation Emissions Ceiling (NEC) Directive. It sets post-2020 national emissions ceilings (NEC) for six air pollutants, such as particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen oxide (NOx).
- 8 June: NEC Directive trialogue