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Initially approved, then revoked. Conflicting authority decisions in the extractive industries

This example illustrates how incoherent policy and its interpretation can be problematic for permitting processes.

A quarry extension permit and conflicting authority decisions

A shared understanding on what constitutes nature conservation and what is worth conserving is not always given. This ultimately can result in conflicting decisions being taken by authorities at local and regional levels. This was the case with the 2014 permit for the expansion of the phase 3 extractive operation in Alcover.

Map with quarry extension permit area highlightedClick to expand

Figure 1: Map showing the quarry extension permit area (phase 3)

Part of the Alcover quarry extension permit is a land use compatibility statement issued by Alcover municipality. The latter undertook the initiative to revise the land use plan in 2007. The existing plan, which was in place since 1982, was updated and revised to reflect new development needs, including needs to accommodate a larger number of inhabitants. A high-level decision maker in Alcover municipality explained that, while the decision to revise the land use plan was not motivated by the quarry expansion needs, these needs were accommodated in the new land use plan, as it did not conflict with other existing and future land uses in its vicinity. The new land use plan was initially approved locally, then regionally as per the existing land use planning legislation, and was in instated in 2014.

Shortcomings in the participatory process stopped the permit

There are different accounts on how participatory this process was: on the one hand, the municipality of Alcover claimed to have fulfilled its legal obligations. On the other hand, a group of affected citizens residing in the municipality of Alcover and the neighbouring municipality of Albiol, claimed that the process of the revision of land use plan and issuance of the compatibility permit for the quarry had not been transparent and their perspective had not been taken into account.

This group of citizens, with the support of the office of the Public Defender of Catalonia, took the matter to court. In 2015, the Court of Justice ruled in favour of the plaintiffs and annulled the land use compatibility permit issued to Canteras La Ponderosa. In 2021, the Supreme Court decided not to accept the appeal by the Government of Catalonia, Alcover city council and Canteras La Ponderosa company. This decision means that Alcover City Council needs to review their newly approved land use plan and that Canteras La Ponderosa can no longer operate in their phase 3 extension area.

An expert commented on this case, explaining that the reasoning behind the permit has to do with the environmental impact assessment of the revised land use plan. The court decision stipulates that this report fails to consider other alternatives, besides the one presented, when it comes to the quarry expansion. Additionally, the quarry expansion area overlaps with an area of special natural protection, according to the regional plan of Tarragona. This case exposes a lack of coherent interpretation of regulations in support of natural protected areas approved by the regional plan amongst public authorities.

Financial guarantees often do not match conservation needs

Overall, there are approximately 900 quarries in Catalonia, with almost half of them having their mineral permits expired due to lack of operation, as per the mineral law. In cases in which the companies fail to comply with such an obligation, the restoration project is carried out by the Catalan Environment Agency using the monetary guarantee deposited by the company during the permitting process. Often case, this fund is not sufficient, leaving the public authorities with the only option of adapting the rehabilitation plan to the available funding. Despite it being legal, this solution does not guarantee the implementation of the most environmentally adequate rehabilitation plan.

An incoherent understanding and interpretation of policy among authorities can lead to conflicting decisions

This example is illustrative how incoherent policy (nature conservation and land use planning in relation to mineral policy) and its interpretation can be problematic for permitting processes. The interpretation and implementation of regulations affecting extractives is sometimes not homogeneous amongst public authorities, and, therefore, can lead to conflicting decisions. The case of the Alcover quarry extension permit (the EIA of this permit) and the Alcover municipality Land Use Plan being overruled by a court decision is an example of a lack of common understanding on what activities can be allowed in protected areas and what activities are not compatible with the conservation objectives.

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Sustainable Management in the Extractive Industry

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