The Environment and Spatial Planning Department of Styria’s state government has come under fire this week for allegedly allowing environmental corruption. Large-scale construction projects, like factories and power plants, may have unlawfully gotten stamps of approval from the bureau’s environmental impact assessment office for years, according to allegations reported by the Kronen Zeitung. A legal statement submitted to the Ministry of Justice in July detailed the evidence and was accompanied by a list of high-ranking officials willing to act as witnesses, which led state prosectors to begin the investigation.
According to the Kronen Zeitung, prosecutors from both the state and federal level are primarily focusing on two officials in connection with the allegations: the head of the Environment and Spatial Planning Department (Department 13), Birgit Konecny, and the officer in charge of environmental impact assessment there, Bernhard Strachwitz.
What is an environmental impact assessment?
Environmental impact assessments (EIA, or German UVP) evaluate the anticipated environmental, social and material effects of large development projects, from highways to landfills to industrial farms, by consulting with scientists and industry experts.
EIA is a legal process meant to comprehensively review these projects in order to avoid ecological damage before construction begins, and often requires informing the public through easily-accessible channels with space for public comment. Businesses or corporations looking to start a major development project first have to apply for an EIA.
For example, one of the most high-profile EIA cases in Austria involved the Lobau Tunnel construction project, part of a planned extension to Vienna’s outer ring expressway (S1), which passes through a wildlife reserve. The project received a positive EIA ruling in 2018, meaning construction could go forward, but following a wave of criticism from environmental advocates, Environment Minister Leonore Gewessler (Greens) sent the project back to be evaluated for its climate impact.
An easy pass for applicants
The allegations surrounding the Styrian bureau are that EIA applicants—the organizations that stand to gain from a positive assessment—were for years themselves involved in drafting EIA rulings, Kronen Zeitung reported.
Legally, applicants are only allowed to submit their project proposals, while EIA proceedings are supposed to be judged by impartial government officials.
Red flags began to appear at least as early as June 2017, according to Kronen Zeitung. An official of the government’s Nature Conservation Department stated in a 2017 email that a third-party lawyer had approached him, telling him members of Department 13 had bluntly encouraged the lawyer to write up EIA rulings himself.
Accused officials Konecny and Strachwitz are currently being investigated for bribery, corruption and abuse of office, a spokesperson from the Graz state prosecutor’s office told Kronen Zeitung. Possible accomplices include an EIA judge, as well as the head of a third-party consulting firm that has handled nearly every recent EIA proposal in Styria. The consultancy had recently relocated to be closer to Department 13, and may have enjoyed an overly cozy relationship, sources close to the situation told Kronen Zeitung.
Years of corruption have made the federal state a hotspot for fast-tracking unproven development projects, according to Kronen Zeitung. Every single proposal has passed its impact assessment in recent years—which is not the case in any other Austrian state. Investigators are currently looking into proposals completed in the last five years, though how far back the alleged corruption goes is still under review, Kronen Zeitung told METROPOLE.
Department 13 approved a slew of recent development projects, including wind farms in Handalm, Pretul-Stuhleck and Stubalpe, as well as a controversial pumped storage hydropower plant planned in Koralm, reported Kronen Zeitung. Improper handling of any of these development projects may have caused unknown environmental fallout. The investigation will look into whether the projects were legally approved.
The document submitted to the Ministry of Justice alleged that Konecny would routinely throw out experts’ unfavorable environmental reports and then hire consultants who would provide more favorable opinions, according to Kronen Zeitung. This tactic was allegedly used with the Koralm hydropower plant: One expert ruled negatively on the project because of its adverse impact on the Alpine salamander, a protected species that lives in Koralm—but his report was shelved and another expert brought in.
A call for answers
Styrian parliament representatives from the Greens, KPÖ, FPÖ and NEOS all demanded answers from Regional Councilor Ursula Lackner (Social Democrats, SPÖ), who is in charge of Department 13, reported ORF.
The investigations “have made many of the state’s decisions in recent years appear in a different light,” said Greens representative Sandra Krautwaschl, according to ORF. “It’s well known that there have been rumblings in the department for a long time: Lackner will have to provide answers.”
“These are serious allegations that are being raised here,” Lackner said in a statement released Tuesday. “They must be cleared up completely, as quickly as possible. The state will fully and unreservedly participate in the investigation.”
Witness questioning will begin on Monday, according to Kronen Zeitung.