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Environment

Top European court bolsters environmental challenges in Germany

German environmental groups welcomed a European Court of Justice ruling easing restrictions on environmental challenges to major building projects.

Elbe River, Germany

Environmentalists say the ruling could affect a project to deepen the Elbe River

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Luxembourg has ruled that German law is too restrictive in its rules for allowing citizens and environmental groups to challenge developments that have an impact on people or the environment.

German nongovernmental organizations said this was a significant ruling that would have far-reaching implications.

"Bund welcomes the ruling as an important step to strengthen the implementation of environmental law, as well as citizens' rights," head of nature conservation policy Magnus Wessel, of Friends of the Earth Germany (Bund), told DW.

Individuals and NGOs had only been able to bring complaints against developments such as factories, roads and power plants before the authorities had issued a decision on the project.

Raphael Weylands of Nabu said this was often extremely difficult for volunteer-dependent NGOs, which might only have a few weeks to examine thousands of pages of permit applications.

"This was a huge problem, because there wasn't time to screen all the relevant documents," he told DW. "Now NGOs have more time to bring a case to court if they think environmental law isn't being respected correctly."

The ECJ found that this was incompatible with European regulations. The court also found that the burden of evidence was too high for those filing complaints toward their attempts to show that errors were made in environmental assessments.

Weylands said the ruling could impact an ongoing project to deepen the Elbe River. Nabu has already brought a complaint against the project on environmental grounds to Germany's highest federal court.

"This is an example where judges already mentioned that some of the complaints are not to be respected because of these preclusions," Weylands said. "And now, in our understanding, the court has to respect all the complaints."