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EU rejects application for ‘derogation’ on air pollution

The European Commission announced on 11 December 2009 its decision to reject the United Kingdom’s (UK’s) application for a delay – a “derogation” – until 11 June 2011 to comply with air quality laws for dangerous airborne particles (PM10) in London.

The largest source of PM10 emissions in London is road traffic. Although aircraft and airports emit relatively less PM10 than other pollutants, especially NOx (nitrogen oxides), Heathrow airport and the road traffic associated with it is a significant contributor to PM10 in West London.

The EU decision for the UK and several other countries was announced on 9th Dec 2009.

Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said: “Air pollution has serious impacts on human health and compliance with the standards must be our utmost priority. The 2008 EU air quality Directive recognises the difficulties some Member States have experienced in meeting the standards for PM10 by the initial deadline of 2005 and allows the possibility of a limited time extension. However, the Commission expects Member States to clearly demonstrate that they are doing their utmost to comply with EU standards in the shortest possible time.”

The Commission’s assessment shows that in all UK air quality zones except the Greater London zone exemptions will not be necessary since compliance with the limit values has already been achieved. The Commission found the air quality plan for Greater London did not meet the minimum requirements of the Directive for a time extension.

Enforcement action is already underway against the UK for continuing to exceed the PM10 limit values in London. This may now be escalated.

Simon Birkett, Founder and Principal Contact, of the cross-party Campaign for Clean Air in London said “The government and the [London] Mayor are both to blame for bringing this action upon themselves: the former for letting air quality get steadily worse since the late 1990s; and the latter for taking nearly 18 months to produce a draft air quality strategy that is still not ‘fit for purpose’. The fact that London did not even meet the minimum requirements of the Directive for a time extension is a damning and long overdue indictment of the UK’s attitude to air pollution, complying with environmental deadlines and protecting public health.

With up to 8,000 people having died prematurely due to exposure to PM10 in London in 2005 (when the relevant laws came into effect) it is time the government and the Mayor woke up and took air quality seriously. Action to enforce health based air quality laws for dangerous airborne particles (PM10) is long overdue. These air quality laws were put in place in 1999 and had to be met by 2005.”

If standards for PM10 continue to be breached and the EU is taking action against the UK for those breaches, it is hard to see how permission could be given to use a third runway at Heathrow even if it were built.

A similar situation to that for PM10 is likely to arise for NO2 (nitrogen dioxide) next year. But in the case of NO2, aircraft emissions are more important than PM10. It was the anticipated  breaches of NO2 standards that led to the delay by the government in supporting a third runway and the furore over the “rigged” air pollution assessments. In any challenge by the EU over Britain’s failure to address NO2 breaches, Heathrow expansion is likely to be cited.

Meanwhile, lobby groups continue to try and downplay the air pollution issue.

Prior to the government’s agreement to a third runway, the pro-expansion group Future Heathrow placed newspaper adverts saying a third runway at Heathrow would not make the airport dirtier or noisier. But the Advertising Standards Authority ruled the advert was “misleading” and that claims the runway would not go ahead if local air quality did not meet EU standards on concentrations of nitrogen dioxide were also misleading.

The ASA said: “We noted Future Heathrow and BAA firmly believed that the noise and air limits would not be breached, but considered that the evidence we had seen was not sufficient to justify an absolute claim that noise and pollution would not increase following the construction of a third runway.”