Ministers agree Directives on air quality, major accidents

France's successful Presidency of the EC Environment Council ended in June with agreements on three important Directives on integrated pollution prevention and control, air quality management and major accident hazards.

The Council, held in Luxembourg on 22-23 June, opened with a hostile set-piece exchange between Environment Secretary John Gummer and some of his counterparts over the abandonment of North Sea oil installations following the Brent Spar affair, with Mr Gummer quixotically portraying Denmark, one of the UK's strongest critics, as "Europe's greatest polluter". But tempers simmered down and the meeting proved one of the most productive for some time.

The Directive on integrated pollution prevention and control was agreed (see above). A common position was also reached quickly on the Directive on air quality assessment and management (ENDS Report 234, pp 41-42 ), which now goes to the European Parliament for a second reading.

The Directive will pave the way for "daughter" Directives which will set standards for 13 pollutants. The UK had wanted four of the substances on the originally proposed list deleted, largely on the grounds that they are not transboundary pollutants and therefore do not require action at EC level. However, it had to be satisfied with the deletion of one - fluoride - although it did secure a provision which will ensure that monitoring can be dispensed with where a specific pollutant is unlikely to be present.

The European Commission has now been asked to bring forward the first daughter Directives on sulphur dioxide, particulates, lead and nitrogen dioxide by the end of 1996. It has yet to be decided whether standards will be proposed separately for PM10, the fine particulates which are now suspected of causing respiratory illness. A proposal on ozone is due in 1998, and the remaining eight substances are to be dealt with by 1999 - although the Commission has promised to bring forward proposals on carbon monoxide and benzene earlier if possible.

Much of the debate on the Directive concerned ozone. The difficulty with this pollutant is that it forms some distance downwind of emissions of its precursors, volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides, so that complying with a binding EC limit would be difficult, if not impossible, in areas where it was exceeded. In the event, Ministers agreed that future standards for ozone should be expressed in terms of non-binding guide values.

Southern Member States, led by Spain, had argued that the "standstill" principle in the Commission's original proposal would impose an unfair bar on development in areas where air quality is currently good. They wanted a regime which would have allowed emissions to be raised, with the EC standards acting as a ceiling.

The compromise reached on this point appears to have given them what they wanted. The text is understood to require Member States to maintain pollution levels within the EC standards, and to seek to maintain the best air quality "compatible with sustainable development."

A common position was also reached on amendments to the 1982 "Seveso" Directive on major accident hazards (ENDS Report 229, pp 39-41 ). This, too, now goes back to the European Parliament for a second reading, and is unlikely to be formally adopted until December, and possibly later.

One of the major issues in the final negotiations was the scope of exemptions from the Directive. The UK secured the exemptions it wanted for hazardous cargoes in transit and pipelines, but failed to do so for explosives depots. However, the Commission has been asked to review whether existing legislation provides adequate control over major accident hazards associated with pipelines and transport of dangerous substances, and to report back within three years. Landfills and extractive industries have also been excluded explicitly.

Another significant issue concerned the threshold quantities for substances classified as "dangerous for the environment" at which installations will come within the Directive's scope. The thinking on this has veered back and forth, and at one stage a few weeks ago officials were contemplating cutting the thresholds originally proposed by the Commission by a factor of up to ten.

In the event, Ministers agreed to cut the Commission's proposed thresholds, partly by a factor of ten but by much less for substances with a very high aquatic toxicity (see table ).

A handful of amendments were also made to the thresholds for specific substances. Until now, installations at which hydrogen fluoride is present have come within the Directive at five tonnes, and qualified as "top-tier" sites to which more onerous duties apply at 50 tonnes. The latter has now been cut to 20 tonnes. These thresholds will also apply for the first time to hydrofluoric acid at concentrations of 7% or more, while at lower concentrations the thresholds will be 50 and 200 tonnes, respectively.

Concessions were also made to Sweden, which complained that the existing thresholds for arsenic pentoxide would bring excessive numbers of its many timber treatment sites within the scope of the Directive. The existing threshold of 0.5 tonnes was doubled.

Details of other changes to the original proposal will be reported when the official text of the Directive is available. Meanwhile, the Health and Safety Executive believes that the legislation will require at most limited changes in UK practice, and is unlikely to bring many additional installations within the Directive's scope.

Possibly the biggest impact on UK industry will be felt by lower-tier sites. The Directive will place them under an explicit duty to prepare major accident prevention policies. While many will already have these, the Directive's stronger emphasis on accident impacts on the environment will probably require additional work by many companies.

Ministers also agreed a set of conclusions on climate change. These did little more than endorse the outcome of the recent conference of parties to the UN Convention on Climate Change, in particular the move towards a new protocol on greenhouse gas emission targets beyond 2000 (ENDS Report 243, pp 43-44 ).

But Ministers went a little further in asking the Commission to propose an amendment to a 1993 Decision which set up a mechanism for Member States to report on their progress in controlling greenhouse gases and their strategies for limiting emissions up to 2000 (ENDS Report 209, pp 35-36 ). The amendment would require them to report their emission projections and abatement strategies beyond 2000. The reporting mechanism is potentially important in enabling the Commission to prepare accurate projections of whether the EC as a whole is likely to reach its target of stabilising its CO2 emissions at 1990 levels by 2000, although the Commission has not helped matters by taking two years to prepare a standard reporting format.

Ministers did not discuss the Commission's recent proposal to revive the carbon/energy tax (ENDS Report 244, p 39 ). However, at a meeting of Finance Ministers in May it became clear that UK, and to some extent France, do not regard the proposal as a breakthrough. It would require Member States opting to introduce a tax to make their tax rates converge over the next few years, and is intended to pave the way to an EC-wide tax some time after 2000. The UK regards this as an attempt to introduce tax harmonisation by stealth.

Ministers also gave the Commission a mandate to negotiate on the EC's behalf at the conference of parties to the Basel Convention on transboundary shipment of wastes later this year, when one of the main issues will be to formalise last year's agreement to ban all exports of hazardous waste to non-OECD countries. The mandate will be based on the proposal made by the Commission in May to implement the ban (ENDS Report 244, p 42 ), although this has still left unresolved the difficult issue of what qualifies as hazardous waste.

The Commission also made a presentation on its plans to deal with end-of-life vehicles, one of the EC's priority waste streams. The Commission appears to have in mind a framework Directive - an idea which the UK, for one, intends to resist. The matter was not resolved, with the Commission being invited to continue its work on the issue.

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