* Environmental groups expect building work to stop
* RWE will need to apply for new nature permits
* Essent says ruling disappointing
(Adds ministry spokesman's comments)
By Aaron Gray-Block
AMSTERDAM, Aug 24 A Dutch court on Wednesday annulled German utility RWE's environmental permits for a coal-fired power plant being built near a UNESCO world heritage site, citing insufficient research on its impact.
The UNESCO-listed Wadden Sea area and the Wadden islands, a coastal wetland area that crosses the German-Dutch border, is home to numerous plant and animal species including seals, porpoises and millions of birds, according to UNESCO.
The national government and two provincial authorities issued permits in 2008 to Dutch utility Essent, which is now controlled by RWE.
Three environmental groups, including Greenpeace, appealed to the Council of State, the highest Dutch administrative court, which on Wednesday found in their favour.
"Without the required permits, the energy company is not allowed to continue building," Greenpeace spokesman Rolf Schipper said.
He added that if RWE decides to seek government permission to keep building the power plant while it applies for new nature permits, Greenpeace would contest that.
A spokeswoman at the Council of State said RWE would need to apply for new nature permits for both the building work that has already started and for planned work at the Eemshaven site in the north of the Netherlands.
The utility will need to re-apply to the Dutch government and the provinces of Groningen and Friesland, which issued the original permits.
A spokesman for Economic Affairs Minister Maxime Verhagen said the government did not need to compensate Essent, adding that the utility had taken on the risk when it started construction work before completing the full permit process.
"The ministry will talk to the energy companies to see what the effects of the ruling are. The minister is very confident that the new research that could be necessary for the permits will not lead to a negative decision," the spokesman said.
The council's ruling cannot be appealed.
"RWE/Essent considers the ruling to be very disappointing, because after a long and intense process, there is still no definitive certainty over the completion of the Netherlands' most important energy project," Essent said in a statement.
An RWE spokesman in Germany said: "We need to study the verdict closely. It is very complex."
Essent had already started work on the 1,560 megawatt hard coal/biomass unit, which was due to come online in 2013. (Additional reporting by Tom Kaeckenhoff and Vera Eckert; editing by Jason Neely and Jane Baird)