Plan for managing PCBs and dioxins finalised

The European Commission has published an implementation plan for the control of persistent organic pollutants (POPs). The plan promises amendments to pesticide and biocide legislation, and possibly the EU integrated pollution prevention and control (IPPC) Directive.

POPs are persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic substances. Transported long distances, they often end up in pristine polar ecosystems where their accumulation threatens the environment and human health.

The UN’s Stockholm Convention on POPs, which came into force in 2004, bans the production and use of nine substances - aldrin, chlordane, dieldrin, endrin, heptachlor, mirex, toxaphene, hexachlorobenzene (HCB) and PCBs - and severely restricts production and use of DDT.

All have been banned in the UK for years but a requirement to continuously reduce releases of accidentally produced dioxins, PCBs and HCB is more problematic.

Parties to the Convention have to produce implementation plans within two years of ratification. The EU, a signatory in its own right, produced its version a month after its February 2007 deadline. The UK published a draft version in December (ENDS Report 384, pp 38-39 ).

The UK and EU plans also include measures required to meet a protocol to the UN Commission for Europe Convention on long-range transboundary air pollution, which came into force in 2003 and covers a broader range of substances.

The EU has met many of its obligations through its 2004 POPs Regulation and a raft of other existing legislation (ENDS Report 341, pp 50-51 ). But its implementation plan identifies more than 30 extra measures that are needed. The most important of these will be included in a second policy paper later this year.

Many of the measures involve better implementation of existing legislation, but some legislative changes are also proposed.

  • Unintentional POPs: Emission abatement measures over the past decade have reduced dioxin, PCB and HCB contamination in most EU countries, the Commission reports, but the data is patchy.

    About 5 kilograms of dioxins are emitted each year, mainly from residential combustion, open burning of waste, wood preservation and the iron and steel industry. Annual waste volumes are around 16kg.

    The main sources of PCBs are emissions from power generation, road transport and the iron and steel industry. Together these are thought to emit about 4,000kg. HCB volumes are similar and come from pesticide use and the metal industry.

    The IPPC Directive, the EU’s main tool for controlling industrial emissions, is under review (see p 53 ). This will consider extending the Directive to cover combustion installations below the current 50 megawatt threshold. The Commission will also look at the scope for reviewing the guidance documents on best available techniques (BREFs) for each sector to consider the potential for reducing POPs. It notes that the rules on measuring dioxin emissions in the iron and steel industry could be tightened for a start.

    The IPPC review is also considering the Directive’s relationship with the waste incineration Directive, which requires operators to monitor dioxin emissions on an occasional basis and keep them within limits. The Commission may propose changing the rules to include continuous monitoring of dioxins and dioxin-like PCBs.

    The proposal is one of a series designed to improve the data in the POPs inventory (ENDS Report 375, pp 5-6 ). Other data gaps will be addressed by changes to the central emissions register kept under the IPPC Directive.

    Research for the Commission suggests controls on other emissions mean domestic heating and waste burning are now responsible for about 45% of EU dioxin emissions. A similar trend has been noted in the UK (ENDS Report 378, pp 18-19 ), but there are no data on fireworks emissions, which could be a significant source.

    The Commission hopes to address domestic heating and waste burning sources by developing eco-labels and product standards for coal and wood burning stoves, and by improving awareness.

  • Pesticides and other intentionally produced POPs: These have been banned across the EU, but persist in existing equipment and the environment. More than 5,000 tonnes of POP pesticides are stockpiled, mainly in Eastern Europe, and an estimated 100,000 tonnes have been lost to the environment.

    Around 200,000 tonnes of PCBs have been released to date and the Commission thinks 83,000 tonnes are still in circulation in electrical equipment and construction materials.

    Member states have drawn up PCB inventories and have until 2010 to decontaminate or dispose of the equipment listed in them.

    Preventing new POPs entering the market is a bigger challenge. The Commission admits that the tonnage triggers set in the new REACH chemicals regime could allow some potential POPs to escape assessment.

    Measures to prevent new POPs produced as pesticides or biocides should be controlled by separate legislation, with the Directives on plant protection products and biocidal products both under review (ENDS Report 386, p 55  and 385, pp 49-51 ).

  • POPs in waste: Last year, the Commission established concentration thresholds above which any POPs in waste must be destroyed or "irreversibly transformed" using physico-chemical treatment or incineration. But operators can still place the waste in safe underground storage sites, salt mines or hazardous waste landfills if they can show this is environmentally preferable and concentrations are below a separate set of limits published in February.

    The Commission will also look for measures to tackle waste with relatively low POP levels and to establish limits above which waste would be categorised as hazardous by the end of 2008.

  • Soil contamination: The Commission’s thematic strategy on soil, adopted in September 2006, included a proposal for a framework Directive to prevent soil contamination and require member states to draw up an inventory of contaminated sites and remediate them (ENDS Report 381, pp 47-48 ). These measures will include soil contaminated with the POPs listed in the Stockholm Convention.
  • Additional measures: The EU has nominated six substances to be added to the Convention: chlordecone, hexabromobiphenyl, octabromodiphenyl ether, pentachlorobenzene, perfluorooctane sulphonate and short-chain chlorinated paraffins. It has also nominated the last four, together with hexachlorobutadiene and polychlorinated naphthalenes, for inclusion under the UNECE protocol, and is supporting an application from Norway for pentabromodiphenyl to be added to both lists.