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Polluters often leave taxpayers with clean-up bill

Polluters often leave taxpayers with clean-up bill

by Heledd PRITCHARD 2 min. 05.07.2021 From our online archive
Companies not paying the costs of waste they leave behind, Luxembourg-based watchdog says
Waste trucks (right) back up to a pit below to dump their collected garbage
Waste trucks (right) back up to a pit below to dump their collected garbage
Photo credit: Shutterstock

Countries in the European Union are not doing enough to force companies responsible for pollution to bear the costs, resulting in taxpayers footing the bill, the EU’s financial watchdog said on Monday.

Polluters should pay for preventing and remedying the pollution they create, according to EU law. But the burden often falls on EU taxpayers, and the European Commission often has to dip into the bloc's budget to cover the costs, the European Court of Auditors said in a report.

“The polluter-pays principle is based on common sense”, said Viorel Ștefan, who is responsible for the ECA report. “Polluters should pay for the cost of the impact of pollution on society”.

The European Commission does not know how much taxpayers’ money is being used to brace the cost, according to the auditors who carried out the ECA report. A recent study done for the European Commission by consultancy groups Eunomia and Cowi estimated it was around €55 billion a year. 

Around €29 billion of the EU’s nearly €1.1 trillion budget between 2014 and 2020 was aimed at protecting the environment, the report said. But around 2.8 million sites across the bloc are potentially contaminated, mainly due to industrial activity and waste disposal, the report said.

Households pay most towards water services

The report looked at polluters paying for industrial pollution, dumped waste or damage to water and soil. 

Hungary and Poland reported 87% of all cases of companies not abiding by EU law between 2007 and 2013,  the report said. Luxembourg didn’t report any cases, along with France, the Netherlands, Denmark and seven other countries.

Between 2010 and 2018, the EU generated 2.3 billion tonnes of solid waste – the equivalent of 5.2 tonnes per person. 

EU countries are spending around €100 billion a year on wastewater treatment and drinking water purification and all except Germany need to increase their funding by more than 25% if they are to meet the EU legislation requirements, the report said.

While households used just 10% of water supplies in 2017, they paid the most  while the agriculture sector contributed the least for supply and sanitation services, the report found.

There is no EU legislation in place to protect against soil pollution, but almost three million sites across the bloc could be contaminated, mainly due to industrial activity and waste disposal, the report said.

Financial security

One of the reasons the EU has had to remedy pollution left behind by companies is that the contamination happened so long ago that the polluter no longer exists or cannot be identified, the report said.

The insolvency problem can be addressed by EU countries requiring companies to provide an insurance policy or bank guarantee that could cover pollution clean-up costs, the report stated. But the only countries that do so now are Czech Republic, Ireland, Spain, Italy, Poland, Portugal and Slovakia.

The EU Commission should make sure countries are charging polluters for their environmental impact and require financial security measures to protect against environmental risks, the ECA recommended.

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