JURIDICA INTERNATIONAL XX/2013
Hannes Veinla Siim Vahtrus
Docent of Environmental Law Lawyer
University of Tartu Estonian Environmental Law Center
Operators’ General Obligations
as an Environmental
Duty of Care
In Estonia, the codiﬁ cation of environmental law was started in 2007. In February 2011, the ﬁ rst result to
materialise from the codiﬁ cation project—the General Part of the Environmental Code Act*1 (GPECA)—
was adopted. This deﬁ nes, alongside many other fundamentals of environmental law, the general (funda-
mental) environmental obligations as expression of an environmental duty of care. Although the GPECA
addresses both general obligations and operators’ obligations, the present paper deals with only the latter.
The essence of operators’ general environmental obligations lies in taking measures to avoid environ-
mental hazards and taking reasonable precautionary measures with regard to environmental risks at their
own initiative and expense. General obligations are likely to be speciﬁ ed in environmental-sector-speciﬁ c
legislation as well.
One of the main reasons for the codiﬁ cation is the overly casuistic style of the legislation in force. There
is clear lack of provisions with a greater level of abstraction. The other noteworthy trigger for the codi-
ﬁ cation is the wholly fragmented character of the legislation, which considers individual environmental
domains (water, air, nature, etc.), deals with them as isolated from each other, and thus does not provide
for holistic environmental protection as well. General environmental obligations as a ‘safety net’ address
both of the above-mentioned issues: they are abstract—leaving considerable room for interpretation and
being subject to weighing of interests—and also cross-sector in nature, taking care of the holistic protection
of environment-related goods.
While environmental law belongs to the realm of administrative law, general environmental obliga-
tions of operators serve a dual purpose. On the one hand, these obligations are enforced by administrative
bodies, for instance, in the granting of environmental permits. On the other hand, general environmental
obligations should be considered on the operator’s own initiative to a reasonable extent, taking into account
ﬁ rst and foremost the rights and interests of the private individuals who are likely to be affected and their
potential private-law claims.
As general environmental obligations are a new phenomenon not only in Estonian environmental law
but also in many other jurisdictions, there is little practical experience with their application overall and a
complete lack in Estonia. The goal of this paper is to highlight the main grounds for recognition of general
environmental obligations of operators. The present paper also is aimed at pointing out key characteristics of
general environmental obligations and considerations that must be taken into account in their application.
1 Keskkonnaseadustiku üldosa seadus. – RT I, 28.2.2011, 1 (in Estonian).