U.S. Environmental Lawyer Sues Europe

The European Union is probably the most progressive bloc of countries in the world when it comes to green policies, trumping the United States in many areas like climate legislation and restrictions on toxic chemicals.
So why is an American attorney seeking to bring lawsuits against the bloc and its member states for environmental shortcomings?
James Thornton, the chief executive of ClientEarth, a non-profit law firm founded two years ago with offices in London, Brussels and Paris, said:

“No matter how well intentioned governments are, they always can be led astray…Europe has laws that are comprehensive and ambitious, but they are often difficult to enforce or not enforced at all, and Europe actually lags the United States rather badly in this regard.”

Mr. Thornton honed his know-how as an environmental lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a group founded in 1970 by a group of law students and attorneys at the forefront of the U.S. environmental movement.
During the 1980s, Mr. Thornton brought scores of cases in U.S. courts and caused the administration of President Ronald Reagan to take action to stop companies in sectors like agriculture and steel from discharging pollutants into bodies of water such as the Chesapeake Bay and to make them clean up the mess which they had created.

Some of the same philanthropic organizations which supported Mr. Thornton and his organization 30 years ago, including a foundation run by Michael and Winsome McIntosh, the heirs to wealth from the A.&P. supermarket chain, also are financing his newest efforts in Europe.
Other backers include the European Climate Foundation and the Marisla Foundation, a charity that emphasizes marine conservation.
One of the aims of ClientEarth is to create

“an equality of arms”

in Brussels, where as many as 20,000 often well-funded lobbyists seek to influence legislation on behalf of major utilities, car manufacturers and food companies.
Another is to bring lawsuits, although ClientEarth has not won any cases in court so far.
When ClientEarth sued the French government in 2008 for failing to enforce a ban on the use of drift nets that entangle and often kill endangered species like dolphins, by fishermen, the French court in Paris rejected the claim.
ClientEarth sued again later that same year, asking for an emergency order that would have forced the government to intervene, however the court declined to grant the request.
Mr. Thornton said the result in France was a symptom of the larger problems faced by litigants in many parts of Europe, where it was difficult to put environmental laws into practice.
In places like England and Wales, bringing cases to court is too financially risky, because losers have to pay the legal costs of their adversaries. The barriers to justice created by such costs show that

“Her Majesty’s courts are open to everyone, just like the Ritz.”

In Luxembourg, at the European Court of Justice, the highest E.U. tribunal, judges accept only cases filed by governments and companies, thereby effectively blocking environmental campaign groups from lodging complaints to hold enforcement bodies like the European Commission to account.
Seeking to remedy such situations, ClientEarth brought a pair of cases to a committee of international lawyers in Geneva against the British government and the E.U. at the end of 2008.
The committee, which arbitrates complaints under the Aarhus Convention, an international agreement on environmental matters, may not issue binding decisions. But Mr. Thornton said that rulings in its favor would put pressure on the European court and the British government to put changes in place.
Another public interest lawyer in Europe, Peter Roderick, said that cultural factors also had helped to bamboozle the environmental litigation like mass tort cases which have become commonplace in the United States.
Mr. Roderick formerly was with the environmental campaign group Friends of the Earth International and is also a co-director in Britain of the Climate Justice Program.
That being said, Mr. Roderick said there had been increasing litigation amid growing concern over climate change, including cases brought in the British High Court by environmental activists against the British Treasury concerning the restructuring of the Royal Bank of Scotland.
The activists insisted that the Treasury should have taken measures to ensure that public money was spent in ways which did not undermine human rights or contribute to climate change when bailing out the bank in Scotland in the aftermath of the subprime lending crisis.
The court refused to review the case, but the activists have appealed, and they filed another complaint after the bank received a new cash injection by the government.
Mr. Roderick also highlighted a case in which Micronesia, the Pacific island nation, challenged plans by the Czech Republic to refit a coal-fired power station called, Prunerov.
Micronesia’s case was based on the disputation that doing so would result in continued emissions of greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming, which it says threatens its existence.
Jiri Nezhyba, a lawyer in Brno with Environmental Law Service, a group tracking the case, said the Czech government was expected to decide whether plans for the plant needed to be modified before the summer.

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