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Science & Environment

Judge Orders Madrid To Continue, For Now, With Car Pollution Measures

NOEL KING, HOST:

Spain's capital, Madrid, recently became the first European city to roll back measures that aim to reduce air pollution. Madrid had a law that fined people who were driving high-emissions cars downtown. Then a new conservative mayor temporarily lifted that law. Then there were protests, and a judge reinstated the law. All indications are that this fight is not over. Lucia Benavides has the story from Madrid.

LUCIA BENAVIDES, BYLINE: It's a weekday afternoon in Madrid, and traffic in the neighborhood of Lavapies is fairly slow. Only a few cars and motorcycles drive by. That's because drivers of high-emission vehicles are once again being fined for driving through this part of downtown.

CARLOS RIVERA: (Foreign language spoken).

BENAVIDES: Fifty-nine-year-old Carlos Rivera says he supports the car ban because there's less contamination and traffic noise.

RIVERA: (Foreign language spoken).

BENAVIDES: Rivera owns a small watch store in downtown Madrid and says that although the ban has hurt his business, people should stop coming into town in their cars. The car ban is part of a project called Madrid Central which aims to make the city a low-emission zone by limiting traffic in the city center. It was introduced by the former leftist mayor, and local environmental groups say it has lowered emissions by 43%. But this month, Madrid's new conservative Mayor Jose Luis Almeida temporarily halted the project, saying he wants to replace it.

PACO SEGURA: (Foreign language spoken).

BENAVIDES: Paco Segura from the organization Environmentalists for Action (ph) says Almeida's administration is trying to manipulate data to justify halting the project. A local judge suspended the mayor's move and reinstated the car ban until the city government can justify its decision.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTS)

BENAVIDES: That came after thousands of people took to the streets in support of the Madrid Central project, and 70 organizations, including environmental groups, taxi unions and neighborhood associations, filed a lawsuit against City Hall. During municipal elections in May, Mayor Almeida ran on getting rid of the car ban. But now he says he wants to replace it, though he hasn't specified how he plans to do that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSE LUIS ALMEIDA: (Foreign language spoken).

BENAVIDES: Almeida told reporters he will have better results in fighting air pollution than his predecessor. But the environmentalist Paco Segura says there's no sense in halting a project while the mayor figures out ways to improve it.

SEGURA: (Through interpreter) They are placing the freedom to drive whatever they want above the freedom to have clean air and the right for everyone to have a healthy life.

BENAVIDES: The European Union has a mandate to improve air quality in cities across the continent. Madrid has until next year to meet its target of cutting nitrogen dioxide levels by 23%.

For NPR News, I'm Lucia Benavides in Madrid. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.