Hungary 'systematically' breached EU air pollution limits, says court

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Hungary has “systematically and persistently” breached legal limits on air pollution from particulate matter, in some regions for as long as 12 years, the European Union’s top court said in a ruling on Wednesday.

FILE PHOTO: The Szabadsag Bridge with the frozen Danube River seen in a veil of heavy winter smog in Budapest, Hungary, January 30, 2017. REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh

Air pollution is Europe’s number one environmental health risk, with 379,000 premature deaths in the EU attributed to fine particulate matter pollution in 2018.

EU laws have required countries to limit particulate matter since 2005, and the last few years have seen a series of legal action from the European Commission against countries flouting the rules.

The judgment from the Court of Justice on Wednesday puts Hungary on a list of nine EU countries found guilty of illegal air pollution since 2011. Romania, Bulgaria, Portugal, Italy, Poland, Slovenia and Sweden all breached particulate matter limits, while France had illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide.

In a case brought by the Commission in 2018, the court ruled that Hungary had breached limits on particulate matter pollution from 2005 to 2017 in Budapest and the northeast Sajo river valley region, and in the southwest city of Pecs from 2011 to 2017, with the exception of 2014.

The court also said that, since 2010, Hungary had failed to ensure that breaches were kept as short as possible.

The ruling orders Hungary to comply or face potential further legal action by the Commission to impose financial penalties.

The court acknowledged Hungary did adopt air quality plans - but it said these plans did not require fast action to rein in particulate matter.

Particulate matter is produced by industry and vehicle emissions, as well as some agriculture, and is associated with respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

In Hungary, 13,100 premature deaths were attributed to fine particulate matter in 2018, according to the European Environment Agency. Per capita, such fatalities in Hungary were the same as the Czech Republic and Greece, and behind only Bulgaria and Poland in the EU.

Reporting by Kate Abnett; Editing by Philip Blenkinsop and Alex Richardson