Storm looms over latest EU air quality proposal

Proposals for a fourth EU "daughter" Directive on air quality standards for heavy metals, arsenic and polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) have sparked controversy. Environmental groups claim that the standards are far too weak, while industry says they are far too strict - suggesting that the Directive is in for a rocky ride.

The 1996 framework Directive on air quality established a harmonised structure for controlling air pollution across the EU (ENDS Report 245, pp 40-41 ). Statutory standards and long-term objectives were subsequently set for twelve pollutants in three "daughter" Directives (ENDS Reports 273, p 42 ; 287, p 42 ; and 293, pp 45-46 ).

The fourth daughter Directive is now in the offing. A draft proposal circulated by the European Commission's Environment Directorate is whipping up a storm of protest among industry and environmental groups.

"We think the proposal is weak and that derogations will allow most installations to [carry on] business as usual," said the Brussels-based European Environmental Bureau (EEB).

In contrast, European metals association Eurometaux questioned the need for the legislation, arguing that industrial sources of these pollutants can be controlled by other means such as the integrated pollution prevention and control (IPPC) regime. It wants non-binding guidelines or, at the very least, a weakening of some of the limits.

The draft proposes annual average concentrations for arsenic, cadmium and nickel (see table). These would be phased in steadily from 2005, with full compliance expected by 2010. It also puts forward a standard of 50ng/m3 for mercury, to apply immediately after the Directive enters into force.

The draft also suggests two long-term objectives: 0.6ng/m3 for arsenic, and 0.1ng/m3 for the PAH benzo(a)pyrene (BaP). The Commission is proposing to use BaP as a marker for all PAHs and has suggested a standard of 1ng/m3 to be met by 2010 EEB criticises this approach, complaining that other toxic PAHs such as dibenzopyrenes will fall through the net.

EEB also complains that the standards for arsenic and BaP are based on excess cancer risks to the population of 1x10-5 and 1x10-4, respectively. It argues that existing air quality Directives, and some other limits in the current proposal, use more stringent excess risk figures for carcinogens of 1x10-6.

EEB has called for a halving of the Commission's proposed limit values. It is unlikely to get its way - these figures are similar to current urban background levels, and are exceeded in many areas around industrial sources.

Traffic and domestic heating are significant sources of some of the pollutants, but hotspots exist around industrial sites. The Commission estimates that areas around 140 sites across Europe will be unable to meet the proposed standards even after applying "viable and realistic" abatement techniques. Areas around up to ten oil refineries are expected to exceed the nickel limit, some 16 major copper and lead production sites will not meet the arsenic standard, and over 40 cokeries will fail the PAH limit.

The Commission does not identify the sites in question, but Graham Funnell of UK Steel suggested that some may be in the UK. "There's more work to be done, but some of the UK stainless sites might have some difficulties with the nickel limit," he said. "[UK] cokeries are OK, and on PAHs we might be able to meet the proposed limit, but any tightening beyond that will be difficult."

However, derogations would be available for certain facilities. Installations would be able to continue contributing to an exceedence of a standard as long as they were using measures to control emissions which go beyond best available techniques (BAT).

Eurometaux, though, believes that this approach will lead to public relations problems. It insists that it should be up to regulatory authorities to justify to local people any decision to allow derogated sites to continue to operate.

Eurometaux is particularly upset by the "totally unrealistic" proposal for a long-term target for PAH. It claims that PAH emissions from coke batteries are already as low as possible, and that "no technical or economical possibilities to further reduce emissions exist." The metals industry warns that the standards would result in the closure of European coke batteries and displace production to areas where regulation is less strict.

Other aspects of the proposal address monitoring requirements and require Member States to draw up maps of zones and agglomerations where the long-term objectives for arsenic and BaP are exceeded.

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