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Published: 13 February 2017      

Elbe legal blow to Port of Hamburg

Germany's highest federal civil court in Leipzig has ruled that fairway deepening and widening can go ahead only under certain conditions. This could delay the project for another two years or more

The Bundesverwaltungsgericht delivered its judgement on 9th February, as expected. The 7th Chamber under the lead judge Rüdiger Nolte stated that European water quality regulations have been met and that the documentation and activities regarding the planning procedures prepared by the Hamburg Port Authority (HPA), the Hamburg government and the federal government are in line with European and German law.

To this extent, NABU, BUND and WWF have lost the argument (although they have already indicated that they will not take the judgement lying down and may launch a new appeal).

In a blow to Hamburg, the court ruled that dredging works cannot proceed unless two major demands are met. One is a legal duty to protect an endangered fresh water plant Wasserschierlings-Fenchel ("Waterfall fennel"), which is found on the banks of the lower Elbe River and nowhere else in the world. It is understood that Hamburg included the plant in its planning considerations, but the riparian state concerned, Lower Saxony, ignored them.

The second point is that Hamburg has not provided sufficient replacement or mitigation surfaces ashore. These will have to come from the neighboring state of Schleswig-Holstein, which politically at least should not be difficult as the Port of Hamburg is an important employer for this Land's citizens. Getting Lower Saxony to cooperate on the plant species, however, is much more problematic, as it wants to boost its deep water port JPW JadeWeserPort in Wilhelmshaven, which is in urgent need of more business.

The market has responded quickly to the Leipzig judgment. The 2M alliance has announced that two of their services will leave Hamburg and CMA CGM will shift one of its Asian loops to JWP.

The fact that the court agreed that the improvements of the river’s fairway are fundamentally necessary does not alter the fact that it will be a long time before the first dredgers commence work and Hamburg has already been waiting 15 years.

The last capital dredging was in 1999, when the port forecast a volume of up to 25M TEU per annum by 2030. In fact the port handled around 9M TEU last year.

This is a difficult time for the Hamburg shipping and port community. Hamburg-Süd was sold to Maersk, "KG owners" are going insolvent, Rickmers has been forced to sell its liner business and environmental groups and local residents have spiked the Westerweiterung and turning basin projects.

  • 15th February addition: According to the Port of Hamburg, inland distribution of container traffic by rail increased by 2.4% last year to 2.4M TEU, so the modal share of rail increased from 41.6% in 2015 to 42.3%. In absolute terms, Hamburg is Europe's biggest "container rail port," with 200 container trains arriving and departing every day.


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  • Europe) Germany) Germany Legal and regulatory
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