Today, April 30th, a new EU directive on the liability for environmental damages takes effect. This guideline is the first one set up by the EU which is based on the polluter-pays-principle. Environmental damages comprise negative effects on water resources, natural habitats, flaura and fauna as well as ground pollutions endangering people´s health.
The directive in question is to make sure that environmental damages are prevented or made up for. The expression „environmental damage or loss» comprises damages to species and natural habitats which are protected throughout the EU by the Directive on Birds from the year 1979 and the Directive on Natural Habitats from 1992. The expression also includes damages to waters which are defined in the Water Framework Directive which was passed in the year 2000 as well as the impairment of people´s health through ground pollution. The new directive is not retroactive.
Those which can be held liable for the costs of preventing or elimination of environmental damages are the operators of effectively or potentially dangerous processes which are defined in the new directive. This includes the release of heavy metals into waters or air, machines which produce harzardous chemicals, dumping grounds and waste incineration plants. In the case of intent or negligence other economic players may be held liable for the costs of the prevention or elimination of damages to species and natural habitats too.
Public authorities play a central role in the legal liability system. It will be their task to make sure that operators are taking and financing the respectively necessary preventive measures or remedial actions.
Furthermore, public interest groups such as non-governmental organizations are entitled to prompt public authorities to act if necessary and appeals against their decisions in court, if these decisions were illegal.