STRASBOURG (AFP) — Illegal polluters in Europe face criminal sanctions for serious abuse of the environment, either on purpose or through negligence, under new measures adopted Wednesday at the European Parliament.
The rules will force European Union countries to sanction anyone who pollutes or degrades a protected site, misuses nuclear or hazardous radioactive materials and mishandles waste.
Trading in endangered plants or animals must also be punished bloc-wide.
Attempts to set fines and jail terms did not pass EU muster -- nations will enforce their own penalties -- but the document does oblige them to impose "effective, proportionate and dissuasive criminal sanctions".
EU nations jealously protect their authority in penal matters but Europe's top court ruled in September 2005 that the European Commission could make proposals on penal issues when they concern the environment.
"This agreement marks a significant contribution for strengthening the protection of Europe's environment," EU Justice Commissioner Jacques Barrot said in a statement.
"No more safe havens will be possible for those responsible for polluting our environment," he said.
EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said: "Making serious violations of Europe's environmental rules into criminal offences should have a major dissuasive effect."
The measures target individuals who introduce noxious products into the air, soil or water, or which might harm plant and animal life, or seriously injure or kill someone.
The illegal shipment of waste, the making of products that damage the earth's ozone layer or significant damage inflicted on wildlife habitats must also be considered criminal offences.
Companies that benefit from such acts could also be liable.
The move was welcomed by Green groups, in part because it will also oblige EU countries to lay out exactly how they plan to apply the new laws.
"Member states will no longer be able to systematically lift penalties for environmental crimes, and that represents progress of the highest importance," Monica Frassoni, Greens leader in the assembly, said in a statement.
"We'll be watching carefully," said the Italian deputy, whose country is mired in a waste removal crisis that the commission has taken legal action over in an effort to force Rome to tackle the problem better.
In France, "penal law will become more dissuasive", with the new option to "sanction dangerous conduct even before an attack on the environment has happened," said Arnaud Gossement, spokesman for the France Nature group.
Transposition of the new measures into the 27 national laws is supposed to be done within two years, and Barrot said that the EU's executive body would also be closely monitoring this process.
"For the gravest violations, only the sharp sword of criminal law can have any real dissuasive effect," he warned, during debate on the text in the assembly in Strasbourg.
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