Autor: Enrique J. Martínez Pérez, profesor contratado doctor de la Universidad de Valladolid
Palabras clave: contaminación industrial, derecho al respeto a la vida privada y familiar, reasentamiento de la población.
El asunto que nos ocupa versa sobre la contaminación industrial procedente de una mina y una planta de procesamiento de carbón propiedad del Estado. Los demandantes, residentes en una zona rural muy cercana a dichas instalaciones, habían estado expuestos durante muchos años, según los estudios de las autoridades nacionales y de diversas entidades privadas, a un alto riesgo de padecer cáncer y otras enfermedades renales y respiratorias, debido no sólo a la presencia de elevados niveles de concentración de sustancias peligrosas en el aire, sino también a la contaminación de las aguas subterráneas, proveniente de las infiltraciones en las escombreras. Al mismo tiempo, habían sufrido también inundaciones y hundimientos del suelo. Ante esta situación, las autoridades ucranianas decidieron facilitar una nueva vivienda a los afectados en una zona más segura. Pero debido a la demora de sus promesas, cada familia presentó un demanda civil, con resultados diversos: a unos se les confirma el derecho a ser reubicado en otro lugar, mientras que a otros se le deniega, inter alia, porque los responsables de la empresa había tomado ya medidas para limitar la polución.
Como suele ser habitual en este tipo de asuntos, los demandantes alegan que han sufrido una grave injerencia del Estado respecto a los derechos garantizados en el artículo 8 del Convenio. De conformidad con los criterios presentes en la sólida jurisprudencia existente en la materia, la Corte indica que han sido facilitados una cantidad considerable de datos que evidencian que, durante al menos doce años transcurridos desde la entrada en vigor de la Convención respecto a Ucrania, los demandante habían vivido en una zona insegura según el marco legislativo y los estudios empíricos. Asimismo, considera que, aunque los demandantes son libres de moverse a otro lugar, no les resultaba factible llevar a cabo el cambio de residencia sin el apoyo económico del Estado, más aún cuando su actual vivienda había sufrido una importante depreciación al estar ubicada en una zona saturada ambientalmente.
Por otra parte, la Corte señala que el Estado goza en estos casos de un amplio margen de apreciación, por lo que debe dejarse a su elección los medios para cumplir con sus obligaciones. En consecuencia, sería ir demasiado lejos establecer un derecho a la libre elección de la vivienda a costa del Estado; las demandas de las familias perjudicadas podrían igualmente ser atendidas mediante medidas que redujesen los riesgos ambientales a niveles que no fuesen peligrosos para los individuos que viviesen en la cercanía de las instalaciones. Pero no fue así, porque la actuación estatal se había caracterizado por numerosos retrasos y una aplicación incoherente.
Destacamos los siguientes extractos:
115. While agreeing with the Government that the statutory definitions do not necessarily reflect the actual levels of pollution to which the applicants were exposed, the Court notes that the applicants in the present case have presented a substantial amount of data in evidence that the actual excess of polluting substances within these distances from the facilities at issue has been recorded on a number of occasions (see paragraphs 17-18 and 22-23 above).
116. In deciding on whether the damage (or risk of damage) suffered by the applicants in the present case was such as to attract guarantees of Article 8, the Court also has regard to the fact that at various times the authorities considered resettling the applicants. The need to resettle the Dubetska-Nayda family was ultimately confirmed in a final judgment given by the Chervonograd Court on 26 December 2005.
117. As regards the Gavrylyuk-Vakiv family, on 21 June 2004 the same court found their resettlement unnecessary. However, in its findings the judicial authorities relied on anticipation that the factory would promptly enforce the measures envisioned in its prospective buffer zone management plan. These measures included hydro-insulation of the spoil heap and decreasing its height to 50 metres (in which case, as noted by the applicants, a 300-metre buffer zone around the spoil heap would become permissible under domestic law). According to the case file materials, these measures have not yet been carried out.
118. Consequently, it appears that for a period exceeding twelve years since the entry of the Convention into force in respect of Ukraine, the applicants were living permanently in an area which, according to both the legislative framework and empirical studies, was unsafe for residential use on account of air and water pollution and soil subsidence resulting from the operation of two State-owned industrial facilities.
119. In these circumstances the Court considers that the environmental nuisance complained about attained the level of severity necessary to bring the complaint within the ambit of Article 8 of the Convention.
120. In examining to what extent the State owed a duty to the applicants under this provision, the Court reiterates that the present case concerns pollution emanating from the daily operation of the State-owned Vizeyska coal mine and the Chervonogradska coal-processing factory, which was State-owned at least until 2007; its spoil heap has remained in State ownership to the present day. The State should have been, and in fact was, well aware of the environmental effects of the operation of these facilities, as these were the only large industries in the vicinity of the applicant families’ households.
121. The Court further notes that the applicants set up their present homes before the facilities were in operation and long before the actual effect of their operation on the environment could be determined.
122. The Court also observes that, as the Government suggests, in principle the applicants remain free to move elsewhere. However, regard being had to the applicants’ substantiated arguments concerning lack of demand for their houses located in the close proximity to major industrial pollutants, the Court is prepared to conclude that remedying their situation without State support may be a difficult task. Moreover, the Court considers that the applicants were not unreasonable in relying on the State, which owned both the polluters, to support their resettlement, especially since a promise to that effect was given to them as early as in 1994. As regards the Government’s argument that the applicants could have applied for social housing, in the Court’s view they presented no valid evidence that a general request of this sort would have been more effective than other efforts made by the applicants to obtain State housing, especially in view of the fact that the only formal reason for them to seek relocation was environmental pollution.
123. In the Court’s opinion the combination of all these factors shows a strong enough link between the pollutant emissions and the State to raise an issue of the State’s responsibility under Article 8 of the Convention.
124. It remains to be determined whether the State, in securing the applicants’ rights, has struck a fair balance between the competing interests of the applicants and the community as a whole, as required by paragraph 2 of Article 8.
150. The Court considers that when it comes to the wide margin of appreciation available to the States in context of their environmental obligations under Article 8 of the Convention, it would be going too far to establish an applicant’s general right to free new housing at the State’s expense (see Fadeyeva, cited above, § 133). The applicants’ Article 8 complaints could also be remedied by duly addressing the environmental hazards.
151. In the meantime, the Government’s approach to tackling pollution in the present case has also been marked by numerous delays and inconsistent enforcement. A major measure contemplated by the Government in this regard during the period in question concerned the development of scientifically justified buffer zone management plans for the mine and the factory. This measure appears to have been mandatory under the applicable law, as at various times the public health authorities imposed sanctions on the facilities’ management for failures to implement it, going as far as the suspension of their operating licences (see paragraphs 32 and 35 above). However, these suspensions apparently remained unenforced and neither the mine nor the factory has put in place a valid functioning buffer zone management plan as yet.
152. Eight years since the entry of the Convention into force, in 2005, the factory had such plan developed. When dismissing the applicants’ claims against the factory for resettlement, the judicial authorities pointed out that the applicants’ rights should be duly protected by this plan, in particular, in view of the anticipated downsizing of the spoil heap and its hydro-insulation. However, these measures, envisioned by the plan as necessary in order to render the factory’s operation harmless to the area outside the buffer zone, have still not been enforced more than five years later (see paragraph 38 above). There also appear to have been, at least until the launch of the aqueduct no later than in 2009, delays in supplying potable water to the hamlet, which resulted in considerable difficulties for the applicants. The applicants cannot therefore be said to have been duly protected from the environmental risks emanating from the factory operation.
153. As regards the mine, in 2005 it went into liquidation without the zone management plan ever being finalised. It is unclear whether the mine has in fact ceased to operate at the present time. It appears, however, that the applicants in any event continue to be affected by its presence, in particular as they have not been compensated for damage caused by soil subsidence. In addition, the Dubetska-Nayda family lives within 100 metres of the mine’s spoil heap, which needs environmental management regardless of whether it is still in use.
154. In sum, it appears that during the entire period taken into consideration both the mine and the factory have functioned not in compliance with the applicable domestic environmental regulations and the Government have failed either to facilitate the applicants’ relocation or to put in place a functioning policy to protect them from environmental risks associated with continuing to live within their immediate proximity.
155. The Court appreciates that tackling environmental concerns associated with the operation of two major industrial polluters, which had apparently been malfunctioning from the start and piling up waste for over fifty years, was a complex task which required time and considerable resources, the more so in the context of these facilities’ low profitability and nationwide economic difficulties, to which the Government have referred. At the same time, the Court notes that these industrial facilities were located in a rural area and the applicants belonged to a very small group of people (apparently not more than two dozen families) who lived nearby and were most seriously affected by pollution. In these circumstances the Government has failed to adduce sufficient explanation for their failure to either resettle the applicants or find some other kind of effective solution for their individual burden for more than twelve years.
Comentario del autor:
El presente asunto confirma la línea jurisprudencial mantenida hasta la fecha con relación a la contaminación derivada de actividades industriales. Al igual que en el asunto Fadeyeva v. Russia, de 9 de junio de 2005, la Corte advierte que no es su cometido imponer obligaciones precisas a las autoridades nacionales para remediar los peligros ambientales derivados de las actividades industriales, sino que deja en manos de éstas la decisión de tomar las medidas más adecuadas en función de cada situación. De este modo, un Estado puede plantearse otras opciones que no pasan necesariamente por la reducción de los niveles de contaminación, como, por ejemplo, la reubicación de la población en zonas más seguras. Claro está que esa posibilidad lleva aparejado siempre un coste económico, que debe ser necesariamente asumido, al menos parcialmente, por el responsable de la instalación, sea pública o privada.