Brussels and NGOs share doubts over France’s Notre-Dame-des-Landes airport

The proposed airport at Notre-Dame-des-Landes would destroy a large habitat for native water voles. [Peter Trimming/Flickr]

Three days before the vote on the future of the Notre-Dame-des-Landes airport, a host of environmental issues remain unresolved. The European Commission has joined NGOs in expressing serious concerns over the project. EURACTIV France reports.

With Sunday’s (26 June) public consultation on the construction of a new airport near Nantes looming large, environmental NGOs are urging French citizens to vote against the project. The benefits of the planned airport have been questioned both at a European and a national level.

The proposed new airport would have a significant environmental impact, including the destruction of wetlands and the artificialisation of some 900 hectares of land. This would generate four times more CO2 than would the development of Nantes’ existing airport.

And the anticipated economic benefits for the local inhabitants are by no means guaranteed. The latest official report on the subject concluded that the project was “oversized” and called for an independent investigation into the question of noise pollution in Nantes, which is being used to justify the project.

“This project is mired in the absurd, both in terms of the financial and environmental cost,” said Denis Voisin, the spokesman of the Fondation Nicolas Hulot, an environmental group.

No response to Commission’s questions

These concerns are shared by the European Commission. Two years ago, the executive launched an infringement procedure against France for the violation of the EU’s environment directives.

These call for a comprehensive strategic environmental evaluation ahead of the construction of any airport.

Paris has not yet finalised its response, which it plans to unveil with the revision of the Nantes Saint Nazaire territorial coherence scheme (SCOT). This is a long process: the environmental authority attached to the General Council of the Environment and Sustainable Development (CDGEDD) began the task in June and plans to publish its conclusions in September.

“The Commission is closely following the ongoing procedure. In the meantime, construction work on the Notre-Dame-des-Landes airport must remain suspended, in order to ensure that the agreed compliance procedure is respected,” a European Commission spokesperson told EURACTIV.

“The Commission will only be able to make its decision once it has the updated SCOT document. And this will take time. It will not be able to give its opinion before October,” said Florence Denier-Pasquier, a lawyer and activist for the group France Nature Environment.

A close consultation

The French Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced that work on the site would begin in October, if the consultation gives the project the green-light. He repeated this position on Tuesday (21 June), assuring the French parliament that the result of the consultation would be decisive.

“If the ‘No’ vote wins, the project will be abandonned. If the ‘Yes’ vote wins on Sunday, the project will go ahead,” he said.

French NGOs are already preparing a legal challenge, should the ‘Yes’ side win the vote. Under European law, voters must be given at least a month to consider the facts before a referendum, but the information regarding the plans for the Notre-Dame-des-Landes airport was only made available two weeks ago.

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“Of course we wanted a consultation. We have promoted this approach all along. It is just that the dice are loaded: there is a lack of information and the population consulted is not the population concerned. We need to ask the opinion of the whole Grand Ouest region,” said Philippe de Grissac, the vice-president of the French Bird Protection League (LPO).

Bulldozers jumping the gun?

The site has not been authorised for clearing, nor has the destruction of the water vole’s habitat been approved. This rare amphibious animal [pictured] is native to Notre-Dame-des-Landes.

“Several disputes are still ongoing. But we can’t be complacent, bulldozers can move faster than judges,” said Denier-Pasquier, expressing the same concerns as the European Commission.

A group of French politicians calling themselves the Collectif d’élus doutant de la pertinence de l’aéroport de Notre-Dame-des-Landes (Cédpa) on Tuesday published a study supporting the CDGEDD’s conclusion that the new airport is a disproportionate response to the challenges facing the old one.

For the group, there is no truth in the justification made in the airport’s declaration of public utility that air traffic and associated noise at the old Nantes airport was rising. This evaluation deconstructs the whole argument legitimising the project, as the main objective stated for the new airport is to keep noise pollution to an acceptable level in the city of Nantes.

While the Commission’s ruling will be based strictly on the technical aspects of the project, the subject has become sufficiently politicised for Brussels to proceed with extreme caution. “The prime minister’s strong engagement on the subject has inevitably put pressure on the Commission’s services,” a source from the European executive said.

Conseil général de l’environnement et du développement durable

Journal officiel

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