UK faces European court over coal plant emissions

Aberthaw power plant, Wales. [Andrew Green/Flickr]

Brussels will haul the UK into court for breaching emissions limits of the toxic pollutant nitrogen dioxide (NOx) at its coal-fired Aberthaw power plant in Wales, the bloc announced on Thursday.

The Aberthaw plant in the Vale of Glamorgan is currently operating under a permit allowing emissions of 1200mg of NOx per normal cubic metre (Nm3) – more than twice the 500mg limit set out in the EU’s large combustion plant directive.

Toxic fumes from Britain’s coal plants alone are responsible for 1,600 premature deaths a year and health costs from related damage to respiratory systems have been estimated as high as as €3.7bn (£2.7bn) a year.

Molly Scott Cato, the Green MEP for South West England and Gibraltar said, “This is further evidence of the government’s refusal to take air quality seriously and another nail in the coffin of their claim to be the greenest government ever.”

Doug Parr, Greenpeace’s chief UK scientist added: “It’s becoming increasingly clear that burning dirty coal is incompatible not just with our carbon reduction targets but with efforts to clean up our air too. The leaders of the next government need to keep their promises and get on with the job of phasing out unabated coal within the next decade.”

NOx emissions are a key component in ground-level ozone and a cause of acid rain, which damages forests, waterways and historic buildings. They can also cause “eutrophication” which threatens biodiversity through the excessive growth of plants like algae.

The UK is planning new investments to upgrade the Aberthaw power station, and has been working “constructively” on the issue, the Commission says. But a deadline to implement the emissions-cutting directive passed seven years ago, and Brussels ran out of patience.

It would now be “impossible” for Aberthaw to meet a stricter power plants NOx emissions limit of 200mg which is due to come into force next year under the industrial emissions directive, a Commission spokesperson said.

“The UK came to us with a national transition plan, showing how they wanted to reach the next directive’s target. But they did not give enough evidence that what they presented would translate into real life,” the official said.

A government spokesperson said: “We will continue to work with the European Commission but it would not be appropriate to comment further at this stage.”

In a separate move, the Commission also said that it would take the UK to the European court over its poor treatment of urban waste water in 17 localities, which pose a threat to human health, inland waters and the marine environment.

Four municipal regions were found to have inadequate treatments of waste water – Banchory, Stranraer, Ballycastle, and Clacton – while one, Gibraltar, had no treatment plant at all.

In 10 other regions, waste water discharged into freshwaters and estuaries failed to meet the higher standards set for such sensitive sites. These were: Lidsey, Tiverton, Durham, Chester-le-Street, Winchester Central and South, Islip, Broughton Astley, Chilton, Witham and Chelmsford.

“All communities in the UK deserve access to proper waste treatment that protects local rivers, biodiversity and human health,” said Catherine Bearder, the Liberal Democrat MEP for south-east England. “It is about time effective action was taken to ensure water companies and local authorities clean up their act.”

According to the EU, nearly half of all surface waters on the continent are unlikely to achieve the bloc’s “good ecological status” target for 2015.

The two separate infringement cases against the UK are expected to come to court before March 2017. There will be a UK supreme court hearing into a separate British infringement of EU air pollution laws on 16 April.

The European Commission has the power to take legal action against member states not respecting their obligations under EU law.

There are three successive stages, a letter of formal notice, a reasoned opinion and referral to the European Court of Justice, which can result in fines. 

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