ITALY – FAILURE TO PROVIDE LOCAL POPULATION WITH INFORMATION ABOUT RISK FACTOR AND HOW TO PROCEED IN EVENT OF AN ACCIDENT AT NEARBY CHEMICAL FACTORY

The principal facts

The applicants all live in the town of Manfredonia (Foggia). Approximately one kilometre away is the Enichem agricoltura company’s chemical factory, which lies within the municipality of Monte Sant’Angelo.

In 1988 the factory, which produced fertilisers and caprolactam was classified as “high risk” according to the criteria set out in Presidential Decree no. 175 of 18 May 1988 (“DPR 175/88”), which transposed into Italian law Directive 82/501/EEC of the Council of the European Communities (the “Seveso” directive) on the major-accident hazards of certain industrial activities dangerous to the environment and the well-being of the local population. The applicants said that in the course of its production cycle the factory released large quantities of inflammable gas – a process which could have led to explosive chemical reactions, releasing highly toxic substances.

In a report of 8 December 1988 a committee of technical experts appointed by Manfredonia District Council established that because of the factory’s geographical position, emissions from it into the atmosphere were often channelled towards Manfredonia. It was noted in the report that the factory had refused to allow the committee to carry out an inspection and that the results of a study by the factory itself showed that the emission treatment equipment was inadequate and the environmental-impact assessment incomplete.

In 1989 the factory restricted its activity to the production of fertilisers, and it was accordingly still classified as a dangerous factory covered by DPR 175/88. In 1993 the Ministry for the Environment issued an order jointly with the Ministry of Health prescribing measures to be taken by the factory to improve the safety of the ongoing fertiliser production, and of caprolactam production if that was resumed. In 1994 the factory permanently stopped producing fertiliser.

On 13 November 1985 420 residents of Manfredonia (including the applicants) applied to the Foggia Magistrates’ Court (pretore) complaining that the air had been polluted by emissions of unknown chemical composition and toxicity from the factory. Criminal proceedings were brought against seven directors of the impugned company for offences relating to pollution caused by emissions from the factory and to non-compliance with a number of environmental protection regulations. Most of the defendants escaped a prison sentence, either because the charges were covered by an amnesty or were time-barred, or because they had paid an immediate fine (oblazione). Only two directors were sentenced to five months’ imprisonment and a fine of two million lire and ordered to pay damages to the civil parties.

The Bari Court of Appeal acquitted the 2 convicted directors on 29 April 1992 on the ground that the offence had not been made out but upheld the remainder of the impugned decision. The court held that the errors which the directors were alleged to have made in the management of the waste were in fact attributable to delays and uncertainties in the adoption and interpretation, particularly by the Region of Apulia, of regulations implementing DPR 915/82. Consequently, there was no damage that gave rise to a claim for compensation.

Articles 11 and 17 of DPR 175/88 require the relevant mayor and prefect to inform local inhabitants of the hazards of the industrial activity concerned, the safety measures taken, the plans made for emergencies and the procedure to be followed in the event of an accident. On 14 September 1993 the Ministry for the Environment and the Ministry of Health jointly adopted conclusions on the factory’s safety report of July 1989, as required by Article 19 of DPR 175/88. Those conclusions provided the prefect with instructions as to the emergency plan for which he was responsible and the measures required for informing the local population under Article 17 of DPR 175/88.

The applicants applied to the Commission on 18 October 1988. Relying on Article 2 of the Convention, they submitted that the lack of practical measures, in particular to reduce pollution levels and major-accident hazards arising out of the factory’s operation, infringed their right to respect for their lives and physical integrity. They also complained that the relevant authorities’ failure to inform the public about the hazards and about the procedures to be followed in the event of a major accident, as required in particular by Article 11 § 3 and Article 17 § 2 of Presidential Decree no. 175/88, infringed their right to freedom of information as guaranteed by Article 10.

Decision of the Court

Article 10
Right of public to receive information had been recognised by Court on a number of occasions in cases concerning restrictions on freedom of press, as a corollary of specific function of journalists, which was to impart information and ideas on matters of public interest – facts of present case were, however, clearly distinguishable from aforementioned cases since applicants complained of a failure in system set up pursuant to relevant legislation – although prefect had prepared emergency plan on basis of report submitted by factory and plan had been sent to Civil Defence Department on 3 August 1993, applicants had yet to receive relevant information.

Freedom to receive information basically prohibited a government from restricting a person from receiving information that others wished or might be willing to impart to him – that freedom could not be construed as imposing on a State, in circumstances such as those of present case, positive obligations to collect and disseminate information of its own motion.

Article 8

Direct effect of toxic emissions on applicants’ right to respect for their private and family life meant that Article 8 was applicable. Applicants complained not of an act by State but of its failure to act – object of Article 8 was essentially that of protecting individual against arbitrary interference by public authorities – it did not merely compel State to abstain from such interference: in addition to that primarily negative undertaking, there might be positive obligations inherent in effective respect for private or family life.

In present case all that had to be ascertained was whether national authorities had taken necessary steps to ensure effective protection of applicants’ right to respect for their private and family life. Ministry for the Environment and Ministry of Health had jointly adopted conclusions on safety report submitted by factory – they had provided prefect with instructions as to emergency plan, which he had drawn up in 1992, and measures required for informing local population – however, District Council concerned had not by 7 December 1995 received any document concerning the conclusions. 

Severe environmental pollution might affect individuals’ well-being and prevent them from enjoying their homes in such a way as to affect their private and family life adversely – applicants had waited, right up until production of fertilisers had ceased in 1994, for essential information that would have enabled them to assess risks they and their families might run if they continued to live at Manfredonia, a town particularly exposed to danger in event of an accident at factory. 

Respondent State had not fulfilled its obligation to secure applicants’ right to respect for their private and family life. There has been a violation of article 8.

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