Court challenge to Lisbon airport plan over wetland threat

By agency reporter
June 6, 2020

The Portuguese government is facing a legal challenge after it approved plans to build Lisbon’s new airport on one of Europe’s most important wetlands – disregarding EU law to do so.

Lawyers from ClientEarth and Sociedade Portuguesa para o Estudo das Aves (SPEA, BirdLife Portugal), supported by seven Portuguese NGOS, have filed a court action with the Lisbon Administrative Court. They argue that the Portuguese authorities failed to properly consider the severe impacts of the future Montijo Airport on an internationally protected nature site before giving the project the green light.

The new airport would be within the Tagus estuary, Portugal’s most important wetland. The site has gained multiple international nature protection statuses because of the hundreds of thousands of birds there, including thousands of migratory wetland birds that congregate for the winter or on their journey between Northern Europe and Africa.

Protected migratory birds and habitats in the Tagus will be permanently disturbed if the airport is constructed. The safety of aircrafts, people and birds would also be threatened by the risk of 'bird strikes', while the health of people and nature would be affected by higher levels of noise and pollution emitted from increased air, road and river traffic.

ClientEarth wildlife lawyer Soledad Gallego said: “The Portuguese government is bound by law to protect the birds and habitats that depend on this unique natural area for survival. Approving this airport would severely deteriorate this important wetland.

“The Portuguese authorities have failed to consider that this project would adversely affect the integrity of this irreplaceable nature reserve. Persevering despite the unnecessary risk it poses to nature is a blatant breach of EU and national nature laws and cannot go unchallenged.”

With this legal action, the groups are aiming to annul Montijo Airport’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which approves the development based on a series of assessments.

In this case, lawyers consider that the Portuguese authorities have failed to carry out reliable assessments and have instead simply proposed to ‘relocate’ the birds that would be affected by restoring marginal areas of the protected area to compensate any negative impacts from the airport.

Failure to fully assess the environmental impact of a project, and jumping to suggesting that birds can and will simply inhabit nearby salt flats instead, is a clear breach of EU and national laws.

Joaquim Teodósio from SPEA said: “An estuary of this size is an ecosystem of enormous complexity that cannot be replicated. Considering this project will have negative impacts across practically all sectors, from public health to nature conservation – a more ill-suited location could not have been chosen. The Tagus Estuary is the worst possible place to install an airport. It simply makes no sense.”

In Portugal, the construction has been met by public and political outcry. Environmental groups in Portugal have also expressed their disapproval, with experts citing the construction as a “crime against nature”.

In the Netherlands, thousands of people have signed a petition against the construction, as it would seriously threaten the migratory black-tailed godwit, the Dutch national bird.

Gallego added: “Montijo Airport could have far-reaching consequences felt well beyond Portuguese borders. Failure to consider this will cause irreversible damage to nature, people and the climate.”

The Tagus estuary regularly hosts up to 200,000 wintering waterfowl and is the most important place in the country for wintering ducks, waders, flamingos, and gulls. Meanwhile, in any given migration season, the Tagus can play host to in excess of 300,000 birds, as it acts as crucial pitstop for migratory birds on their long journey.

Constructing Montijo Airport aims to increase the airport capacity of the Lisbon Region, by turning the Montijo Air Force Base (BA6) into a commercial airport. The new airport would be located approximately 11 kilometres southeast of Humberto Delgado International Airport (AHD-Lisbon) and will complement the existing airport. It is intended to be used by low-cost airline companies.

If Montijo Airport comes into operation in 2022, it is expected to have a capacity of 7.8 million passengers and 46,000 aircraft movements per year. In 2062, this is expected to increase to 17.4 million passengers and 85,000 movements per year.

* ClientEarth https://www.clientearth.org/

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