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European Law Monitor newsAir pollution: Commission takes action over levels of sulphur dioxide and PM10 in member states

The European Commission is taking action over harmful levels of air pollution in EU member states and has started infringement procedures against France, Italy, Spain, Slovenia and the UK for exceeding EU limits on ambient concentrations of sulphur dioxide (SO2), an air pollutant from industrial installations that can cause respiratory problems and aggravate cardiovascular disease. The Commission is also asking 23 member states to provide information on the measures they are taking to reduce the levels of airborne particles known as PM10 to meet EU standards. These coarse particles emitted by industry and traffic can cause asthma, cardiovascular problems, lung cancer and premature death. Some 70% of European towns and cities with 250,000 inhabitants or more have reported exceeding the PM10 limits in at least part of their area. EU limit values for sulphur dioxide, PM10 and several other pollutants were agreed in a 1999 directive[1].

Stavros Dimas, Commissioner for environment, said: "Thanks to EU legislation sulphur dioxide is no longer poisoning our lakes and killing our trees, but in some areas health is still at risk from excessive concentrations. Member states must align levels with EU standards so that citizens are properly protected. PM10 poses an even greater health risk and is a much wider problem, so we need to know that Member States are taking serious measures to prevent further exceedances. "

Infringements of sulphur dioxide limit values

Hourly and daily limit values[2] for SO2 concentrations entered into force on 1 January 2005. The five member states facing infringement procedures all reported exceeding the values in their territory during 2005.

SO2 exceedances normally occur around industrial installations. The daily limit value was most commonly surpassed in Slovenia, while France, Italy and Spain also reported hourly concentrations exceeding 1000 μg/m3 - levels almost three times above the EU limit. These member states reported exceedances in several places, while the UK declared a single exceedance.

Action on PM10

Binding daily and annual limit values[3] for PM10 have been in force since 1 January 2005. However, in its proposal for revising the EU framework directive on ambient air quality[4] (IP/05/1170) the Commission has proposed granting member states limited time extensions to meet the PM10 standards in places where this is particularly difficult and all available measures are already being taken. An important innovation in the new directive is the introduction of standards for fine particles, known as PM2.5, which are more dangerous as they penetrate deeper into the lungs.

As discussions on the new directive are ongoing within the Council and European Parliament, the Commission believes it would be inappropriate to take infringement action over PM10 exceedances at this time. It has therefore sent requests for information to the 23 member states that have reported exceedances of the PM10 values for 2005. The letters require member states to provide information on the measures they are taking to eliminate or reduce the exceedances. This information will allow the Commission to better assess the extent of the problem and prepare responses.

Letters have not been sent to Ireland, which reported no exceedances; Luxembourg, which has failed to provide any report (an infringement case has been opened over this); and Bulgaria and Romania, which are required to report only from 2007 onwards.

Overview of the infringement procedure

Article 226 of the Treaty gives the Commission powers to take legal action against a Member State that is not respecting its obligations.

If the Commission considers that there may be an infringement of EU law that warrants the opening of an infringement procedure, it addresses a "Letter of Formal Notice" (first written warning) to the Member State concerned, requesting it to submit its observations by a specified date, usually two months.

In the light of the reply or absence of a reply from the Member State concerned, the Commission may decide to address a "Reasoned Opinion" (final written warning) to the Member State. This clearly and definitively sets out the reasons why it considers there to have been an infringement of EU law, and calls upon the Member State to comply within a specified period, usually two months.

If the Member State fails to comply with the Reasoned Opinion, the Commission may decide to bring the case before the Court of Justice. Where the Court of Justice finds that the Treaty has been infringed, the offending Member State is required to take the measures necessary to conform.

Article 228 of the Treaty gives the Commission power to act against a Member State that does not comply with a previous judgement of the European Court of Justice. The article also allows the Commission to ask the Court to impose a financial penalty on the Member State concerned.
For rulings by the European Court of Justice see:

[1] Directive 1999/30/EC relating to limit values for sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and oxides of nitrogen, particulate matter and lead in ambient air.

[2] Hourly limit value for sulphur dioxide: 350 g/m3, not to be exceeded more than 24 times per calendar year. Daily limit value: 125 g/m3, not to be exceeded more than 3 times per calendar year

[3] 24-hour limit value for PM10: 50 g/m3, not to be exceeded more than 35 times a year. Annual limit value 40 g/m3

[4] Directive 96/62/EC on ambient air quality assessment and management.