UK defeated in Aberthaw emissions permitting case

The UK and Welsh governments have lost a legal case over the level of nitrogen oxide emissions from a power station in south Wales.

The European Court of Justice in Luxembourg today (21 September) ruled that the UK had been in breach of the EU’s Large Combustion Plants Directive (2001/80/EC) — and must pay all legal costs relating to the case.

The Aberthaw Power Station in south Wales

The Aberthaw Power Station in south Wales

According to the Commission, the UK government had failed to bring emissions from the Aberthaw Power Station near Barry in line with targets set out in the Directive.

Operated by energy firm RWE npower but regulated by the UK government through Natural Resources Wales, the coal-fired power plant operates under a permit which sets a NOx emission limit of 1,200 ugm3 (microgrammes per cubic metre) each year.

However, under the EU Directive, large combustion power plants must meet a NOx emission limit of 500 ugm3 — a requirement that can only be exceeded if the material being burned is solid fuel with a volatile matter content (VMC) of less than 10%.


As a result, the European Commission had referred the UK government to the European Court of Justice in March 2015 (see story), claiming that the Aberthaw plant ‘continued to operate under a permit which allows it to emit high levels of the toxic gas NOx’.

During a hearing in Luxembourg in June, the UK had appealed for ‘flexibility’ to be able to apply the terms of the Directive — arguing that the fuel for the plant had a VMC ranging between 6% and 15%, with a ‘substantial proportion’ of that falling below the 10% threshold.

The UK also argued that due to safety considerations, the plant could not operate exclusively on a fuel with a VMC of less than 10%.

In the ruling this morning, the Court rejected the UK’s arguments, claiming that it is ‘undisputed’ that the coal used in the plant could have an average VMC of less than 10%, adding: “it must be held that by failing correctly to apply Directive 2001/80 to Aberthaw PS, the United Kingdom must be ordered to pay the costs.”


Commenting following the ruling today, a Welsh Government spokesperson said that investment is being made to ensure that the plant can meet the emissions restrictions in future.

The spokesperson said: “The UK argued EU legislation applied a different emission limit to Aberthaw to reflect its unusual design, which was linked to its local Welsh coal supplies. The operator’s investment in Aberthaw has already reduced its emissions and further investments are being made to deliver additional reductions over the remaining life of the station during the transition to lower carbon energy generation.

“Natural Resources Wales will now act to give effect to the judgment. We remain committed to improving air quality across Wales and will continue to tackle emissions from industrial sources.”


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