Tue 26 Aug 2008 – According to a report in the Guardian newspaper, Stavros Dimas, the European Commissioner for the environment, says EU targets on air pollution limits will be “significantly” breached if plans to add additional capacity at London’s Heathrow Airport get the go-ahead. Lord Smith, the new head of the UK’s Environment Agency, has added his concerns in an interview with The Independent, calling the building of a third runway a “mistake” because of the increase in pollution and aircraft noise.
Dimas is reported to have said an expanded Heathrow will miss EU-imposed air pollution targets after January 2015 – the latest possible date the UK Government can meet the directive.
“Technical reports underpinning the Heathrow expansion suggest that nitrogen limit values near Heathrow will be significantly exceeded in 2010, the year in which those limit values become mandatory, and that this will be the case even after 2015,” he said in a letter seen by the Guardian.
BAA, Heathrow’s owner, is calling for the construction of a third runway that would increase the annual number of flights from the present near-480,000 to a potential 702,000. However, the runway would be unlikely to be operational before 2020 at the earliest. As an interim measure, BAA proposes to introduce ‘mixed mode’ operations, which involves continual take-offs and landings on the two existing runways, which would lift capacity to 540,000.
The UK Government denies the expansion will cause a significant breach but conceded in its consultation document that a minor breach of the pollution limits would occur in 2015 as a result of mixed mode. Defra, the government ministry responsible for the environment, has said it would be seeking an exemption for London from the EU directive on air pollution limits but refuted it was connected with the Heathrow proposals.
The intervention from Dimas comes a month after he met with a delegation of council leaders, known as the 2M Group, and MEPs from areas of London that would be affected by the Heathrow expansion. The group, which opposes the plans, says one million extra vehicle movements on roads around the airport would result in higher levels of nitrogen dioxide for local communities.
“We were trying to establish the ground rules for dealing with any application by a member state for extra time in meeting the directive,” said Wandsworth Council leader Edward Lister, speaking on behalf of the group after the meeting.
“We know the UK Government is desperate to find a way round the new nitrogen dioxide limits. If they can’t, they won’t be able to expand Heathrow.
“Our meeting with Commissioner Dimas was incredibly positive. He left us in no doubt of his personal commitment to tackling air pollution. We agreed to share with him our own knowledge of the situation around Heathrow where so many people suffer daily from the health effects of air pollution.”
The air quality directive (2008/50/EC) came into force on June 11, 2008 and requires EU member states to reduce exposure to nitrogen dioxide in urban areas. The limit value of 40 micrograms per cubic metre should be achieved by January 2010.
Meanwhile, the new head of the UK’s Environment Agency and a former government minister, Lord Smith, dismissed the Department of Transport’s insistence that building a new runway at Heathrow could be environmentally sustainable.
“The increases in volume of air traffic and the consequent increases in congestion on the ground are, from the analysis that we’ve done, pretty unavoidable,” he told The Independent newspaper. “I think the Government is making a mistake and I will carry on telling them that I think they are making a mistake.”
The Government is reported to have put back a decision on the Heathrow proposals until later in the year due, it says, to the sheer volume of the responses it has received to the consultation, a figure put at 70,000.
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