Lopez-Ostra v. Spain

Application No. 16798/90; (1995) 20 EHRR 277; [1994] ECHR 46; (1994) 303-C Eur. Ct. H.R. (ser A)
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Mrs. López Ostra brought an action against Spain due to environmental pollution from a nearby waste treatment plant.

López Ostra lived adjacent to the plant, which was operating without a license. The plant malfunctioned on start-up, and released gas fumes and unpleasant smells. These caused health problems and were a nuisance to the local people. Many local people, including López Ostras were evacuated and re-housed by the town council. The town council partially shut down one of the plant’s activities, but allowed a number of other activities to continue.

López Ostra lodged an application with the local courts, complaining that the authorities had not responded sufficiently to the health risks caused by the waste-treatment plant. She requested temporary or permanent cessation of the plant’s activities. The court found against her, holding that the plant’s operation did cause nuisance, but did not constitute a serious health risk, and that in any case the authorities could not be held liable because they had responded to the risks posed by the plant. López Ostra then appealed to the Supreme and Constitutional Courts, who also found against her. López Ostra’s relatives also filed parallel proceedings challenging the plant’s failure to obtain a license and alleging that the plant had breached criminal provisions relating to environmental health, which resulted in temporary shutdowns of the plant’s activities.

López Ostra alleged that, by virtue of the local authorities’ inactivity there was a violation of the right to respect for her home in article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). She also argued she was the victim of degrading treatment, contrary to Article 3 of the ECHR.

The Court held that there was a violation of article 8 of the ECHR. It considered that severe environmental pollution could constitute a violation of the right to respect for home, family and private life even if they did not constitute serious health risks. Spanish authorities were therefore required to take measures to protect López Ostra’s home and private and family life, and that they had not done so. They not only failed to take action against the plant, but had delayed  or resisted implementing judicial decisions ordering the plant to cease its activities. The authorities could not rely on their rehousing of the local families as a measure that they had taken, because they had waited three years before taking action, exposing the families to risk and nuisance in the meantime. The Court found that these considerations outweighed the interest in the economic well-being of the state that might otherwise have justified the operation of the plant under article 8(2) of the ECHR.

However, the Court held that the conditions caused by the plant were not serious enough to amount to degrading treatment under article 3 of the ECHR, although it acknowledged that they were nonetheless very difficult.

“Naturally, severe environmental pollution may affect individuals’ well-being and prevent them from enjoying their homes in such a way as to affect their private and family life adversely, without, however, seriously endangering their health.” Para. 51.

“It has to be noted that the municipality not only failed to take steps to that end after 9 September 1988 but also resisted judicial decisions to that effect.  In the ordinary administrative proceedings instituted by Mrs López Ostra’s sisters-in-law it appealed against the Murcia High Court’s decision of 18 September 1991 ordering temporary closure of the plant, and that measure was suspended as a result (see paragraph 16 above).” Para. 56.

“The Court notes, however, that the family had to bear the nuisance caused by the plant for over three years before moving house with all the attendant inconveniences.  They moved only when it became apparent that the situation could continue indefinitely and when Mrs López Ostra’s daughter’s paediatrician recommended that they do so (see paragraphs 16, 17 and 19 above). Under these circumstances, the municipality’s offer could not afford complete redress for the nuisance and inconveniences to  which they had been subjected.” Para. 57.