ECJ Issues Two Landmark Judgments On Access To Environmental Documents

by Bergeson & Campbell, P.C.
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On November 23, 2016, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) issued two landmark judgments in Case C-673/13 P (Commission v Stichting Greenpeace Nederland and Pan Europe) and Case C-442/14 (Bayer CropScience and Stichting De Bijenstichting v College voor de toelating van gewasbeschermingsmiddelen en biociden).

In Case C-673/13 P, the associations Stichting Greenpeace Nederland and Pesticide Action Network Europe (PAN Europe) submitted a request to the European Commission (EC) under Regulation (EC) No 1367/2006 for access to a number of documents relating to the initial marketing authorization for glyphosate, one of the most widely used herbicides in the world for agricultural weeding and the maintenance of urban and industrial areas.  The EC granted access to the documents, with the exception of part of the draft assessment report prepared by Germany.  The EC justified its refusal by stating that the document in question contained confidential information on the intellectual property rights of the applicants for the glyphosate authorization.

The associations brought an action before the General Court of the European Union (EU) for annulment of the EC’s decision.  The General Court upheld that action in its judgment of October 8, 2013.  The General Court considered that certain segments of the document in question contained information relating to emissions into the environment.  Consequently, the EC was not entitled to invoke the confidentiality of commercial and industrial information, and “should have granted the associations access to those parts.”  The EC was not satisfied with the judgment and asked the ECJ to set it aside.

In Case C-442/14, Bijenstichting, a Dutch bee protection association, submitted a request to the Netherlands’ authority responsible for authorizing the marketing of plant protection products and biocidal products (i.e., College voor de toelating van gewasbeschermingsmiddelen en biociden (CTB)) for disclosure of 84 documents concerning marketing authorizations issued by the authority.  Bayer, a company holding a large number of these authorizations, objected to the disclosure on the basis that it would “infringe copyright and adversely affect the confidentiality of commercial or industrial information.”  CTB authorized disclosure of 35 of the 84 requested documents because they contained information on emissions into the environment, “even though such disclosure could have an adverse effect on the confidentiality of commercial or industrial information.”  Under Directive 2003/4/EC, commercial and industrial confidentiality may not be invoked to prevent disclosure of such information.

Bijenstichting and Bayer appealed CTB’s decision before the Netherlands courts, which referred several questions to the ECJ for a preliminary ruling regarding, among other things, whether the information requested by Bijenstichting falls within the concept of “information on emissions into the environment” -- with the consequence that it should be disclosed without Bayer being entitled to object on the grounds that such disclosure could adversely affect the confidentiality of commercial or industrial information.

The ECJ’s judgments clarify what must be understood by “emissions into the environment” and “information on [or which relates to] emissions into the environment” within the meaning of the Regulation applicable in Case C-673/13 P and the Directive applicable in Case C-442/14.  In both judgments, the ECJ found that the concept of “emissions into the environment” includes the release into the environment of products or substances (e.g., plant protection products or biocides or active substances contained in those products) to the extent that the release is actual or foreseeable under “normal or realistic conditions of use of the product or substance.” 

The ECJ concluded, therefore, that this concept is indistinguishable from the concepts of “release” and “discharge” and cannot be restricted to emissions emanating from industrial installations.  The ECJ decided that the concept covers emissions resulting from spraying of a product into the air or its use on plants, in water, or in soil.  Such limitations, the ECJ opined, would be “at odds with the objective of the regulation and directive for disclosing environmental information as widely as possible.”  Additionally, the ECJ decided that Directive 2003/4/EC and Regulation (EC) No 1367/2006 cover information on actual and foreseeable emissions from a product into the environment.  The ECJ concluded that “purely hypothetical emissions” are not covered by the laws.

The ECJ stated that the concept of “emissions into the environment” must be interpreted as covering not only information on emissions, but also information enabling the public to “check whether the assessment of actual or foreseeable emissions,” on the basis of which the Competent Authority authorized the product or substance in question, is correct. 

In Case C-673/13 P, the ECJ set aside the judgment of the General Court insofar as the General Court considered that it is sufficient that information relates “in a sufficiently direct manner” to emissions into the environment for it to be covered by Regulation (EC) No 1367/2006.  The ECJ referred the case back to the General Court of the EU for determination of whether the information at issue relates to emissions into the environment, and, if necessary, for ruling on the parties’ arguments that were not examined in its judgment.  Case C-442/14 has also been referred back to the lower court.

The ECJ’s judgments clarify that public interest in “information on emissions into the environment” is important and oftentimes overrides commercial interests.  The ECJ’s rulings have potentially significant and widespread implications for companies seeking to protect trade secrets and other sensitive information.  The ECJ’s reasoning in its judgment can be applied to information submitted in relation to chemical products other than pesticides that are intended for uses that involve releases into the environment.  The ECJ’s judgments have been criticized for not addressing risks of substantial harm to pesticide industry innovators and their proprietary rights if studies are now deemed subject to the EU’s disclosure mandate -- data developers will need to consider this possibility and take measures to protect their sensitive information.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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