EU Allows Projects that Impact Natura 2000 Sites

BRUSSELS, Belgium, April 29, 2003 (ENS) - The European Commission has approved the expansion of the Rotterdam Harbor in the Netherlands on the basis of "overriding public interest" regardless of the adverse affects it may have on natural areas protected under the Natura 2000 legislation. The Commission approved a railway in Sweden and a coal mine expansion in Germany that affect Natura 2000 sites, but turned down a second German proposal for an industrial area.

These opinions are legally required under a law known as the 1992 Habitats Directive, and they respond to formal requests by these European Union member states to have the opinion of the Commission. In the case of each approved development the damage to the Natura 2000 site in question is to be offset by compensatory measures, the Commission said.

Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström said, "I am confident that those projects for which we have given a favorable opinion will not significantly affect the overall coherence of the Natura 2000 network in the member states concerned. However, it will be necessary in each case to ensure timely and effective delivery of the compensation measures so that any damage to the sites is fully offset."

In the case of the Rotterdam Harbor, the Commission approved of the development because, it said, no feasible alternatives to the expansion exist. The project is of strategic importance for the further development of the Dutch economy, and the proposed compensatory measures are appropriate to protect the overall coherence of Natura 2000, the Commission said.


Rotterdam Harbor (Photo courtesy Port of Rotterdam)
The Rotterdam port sits on the border of an area protected under the Habitats Directive and is next to three other Natura 2000 sites consisting of dunes and mudflats. An assessment of the effects of harbor expansion showed a loss of habitat for birds, including a 16 percent loss of habitat for scaups, and a five percent loss of habitat for the Slavonian grebe. The assessment, delivered at a conference in March sponsored by The International Navigation Assiociation, the European Dredging Association, and the Institute for Infrastructure, Environment and Innovation, also showed a 20 percent loss of habitat for the fen orchid.

The Commission delivered a negative opinion on the creation of a new industrial and commercial area near Siegen in North-Rhine Westfalia, Germany. The adverse effects of the project on one of the 29 proposed Natura 2000 sites near Siegen-Wittgenstein is not justified by imperative reasons of overriding public interest, the Commission said.

The assessment of possible alternatives to the Siegen project was not carried out in a fully satisfactory way, said the Commission, which did not accept that no alternatives to the project exist. Furthermore, the Commission said, the competent authorities have proposed no particular compensation measures to date.

Another proposed development in North-Rhine Westfalia won a positive nod from the Commission. The extension of the operational master plan of the Prosper Haniel colliery near Bottrop in North-Rhine Westfalia was judged to be justified by "imperative reasons of overriding public interest," although it will have adverse effects on several proposed Natura 2000 sites.

There exist no feasible alternatives to the project, and an accelerated closure of the Prosper Haniel colliery could have significant social and economic effects in the short term at the local and regional level, the Commission said. The proposed compensatory measures met the Commission's criteria to protect the overall coherence of Natura 2000.


Prosper Haniel colliery (Photo by Thomas Imgrund courtesy Mining Europe)
The Commission asked the German government not to view the positive opinion issued for the coal mine expansion as approval of any relaxation in German national efforts to achieve agreed greenhouse gas reduction targets.

The building of a new railway line in Bothnia, Sweden was approved by the Commission which again gave the justification of imperative reasons of overriding public interest. This conclusion is based on the considerations that there exist no feasible alternatives to the planned railway line, that the project will have a major positive impact on the social and economic development of large regions in Sweden, and that the proposed compensatory measures will be appropriate to protect the overall coherence of Natura 2000.

Wallstrom said, "Nature protection and economic development projects can be compatible when projects are designed and implemented sustainably."

Natura 2000 is a network of nature protection areas across the European Union established under the 1992 Habitats Directive. It aims to promote the maintenance of biodiversity by assuring the long term survival of Europe's most valuable and threatened species and habitats.

The network not only includes Sites of Community Importance designated under the Habitats Directive but also embraces Special Protection Areas designated under the 1979 Birds Directive.

Recognition of the need for a network of this kind was a response to the large scale destruction and fragmentation of wildlife habitats which continues to put European biodiversity at risk.

Natura 2000 plays the key role in protecting the EU's biodiversity in line with the decision taken at the meeting of the European Council in Göteburg, Sweden in June 2001 to halt biodiversity decline within the European Union by 2010.

Natura 2000 sites are subject to a protection regime laid down in Article 6 of the Habitats Directive. Any plan or project having a significantly negative effect on a site may only be authorized in the absence of alternative solutions if it is justified for imperative reasons of overriding public interest, including those of a social or economic nature. In such cases the Member States must take all compensatory measures necessary to ensure that the overall coherence of Natura 2000 is protected.

If the site hosts a priority natural habitat type or a priority species, and if considerations relating to human health, public safety or beneficial consequences of primary importance for the environment cannot be invoked, the project must be justified by other imperative reasons of overriding public interest.