Dutch Council of State approves work to benefit Belgian port

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The Dutch government's top advisory body has given the green light for the dredging of an estuary shared with Belgium, effectively lifting a freeze on work to boost access to the port of Antwerp.

THE HAGUE - "The enlargement and deepening of the Western Scheldt estuary may continue," the Council of State, also the country's highest administrative court, said in a statement.

It declared objections to the dredging "unfounded", including from the owner of a 320-hectare (800-acre) piece of farmland reclaimed from the sea, the Hedwige polder, which will now be flooded to allow the project to go ahead.

The Netherlands signed a deal with Belgium in 2005 to enlarge the Western Scheldt estuary -- a key entry point in Dutch territory for ship traffic heading upriver to Belgium's port of Antwerp, Europe's second largest.

The dredging would allow bigger ships to reach Antwerp.

The Hedwige Polder was reclaimed from the sea in 1904 and is protected against the water by levees, or dykes, in the southwestern province of Zeeland.

Flooding the polder would create a nature reserve to compensate for environmental damage envisaged by dredging the estuary.

But public outrage led the Dutch government last April to suggest keeping the polder, which in turn prompted environmental lobby groups to refer the matter to the Council of State.

The council in July ordered suspension of dredging work on the Dutch side of the estuary while it considers the matter, much to the anger of Belgium's Flanders region, which threatened to sue.

The Dutch government made an about-turn in October, and said the polder would be flooded after all, which caused the environmentalists to withdraw their complaint.

The president of Flanders in northern Belgium welcomed Wednesday's decision as "good news for the future of the harbour at Antwerp."

"Enlargement of the Western Scheldt estuary is essential for the harbour to remain competitive," Kris Peeters said in a statement.

Dredging work on the Belgian side had already started in December 2007.


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