Ministers agree groundwater Directive, back GM crop bans

The final meeting of the Environment Council under the Luxembourg Presidency was a busy one. Ministers agreed new Directives to control pollution of groundwater and create an environmental information network. They also adopted positions on a mercury strategy and ship disposal but enraged the biotech industry by backing national GM crop bans.

Environment Ministers met in Luxembourg on 24 June at the end of a tumultuous Presidency which saw the French and Dutch reject a new constitution and EU environmental policy come under increasing pressure from economic priorities.

  • Groundwater Directive: Ministers reached political agreement on a new daughter Directive of the Water Framework Directive to protect groundwater. It proposes EU-wide limits for pesticides and nitrates in groundwater, but leaves it up to Member States to set their own standards for nine other pollutants.

    The Directive would introduce a blanket limit of 0.1µg/l for pesticides in groundwater, but adopt a two-tier approach to nitrates. It would set a mandatory limit of 50mg/l of nitrates in groundwater across the Union, but this would not apply in areas identified as nitrate vulnerable zones (NVZ) which would instead be subject to the 1991 nitrates Directive. This would create the perverse situation where Member States could be prosecuted for breaching the limits in one area, but the same level of pollution would only require them to begin to take action to bring down levels in vulnerable zones.

    The Directive, as it stands, is unlikely to be palatable to MEPs as it goes back to the European Parliament for a second reading, signalling a tough time ahead.

  • Mercury strategy: Ministers agreed a strategy to control mercury pollution - in particular from the chlor-alkali industry. The strategy will phase out exports of mercury from the EU as soon as possible, with a full ban in place by 2011. It also includes measures to ensure the safe storage and handling of mercury. "Residual" use of mercury, for example in dental amalgam and vaccines, would also be addressed and the European Commission will be called on to work on cutting emissions of mercury from combustion, and finding alternatives to mercury in gold mining.

  • GM crop bans: The political surprise of the meeting was the almost unanimous support offered to five Member States for their national bans on eight GM crops. Only the UK backed a resolution from the European Commission for the bans to be lifted. Even Spain, which allows commercial planting of some of the crops in its territory, backed the bans.

    The biotech industry reacted angrily to the vote: "Today's vote is another failure of Member States to play by the rules that they themselves established," said Simon Barber of the European Association for Bio-industries.

    But NGOs were jubilant: "Today's vote results mark a historic turning point in the debate on genetically modified food and crops," said Eric Gall of Greenpeace. "The clear majorities against the Commission on crop bans show that it is time for the EU executive to listen to the 80% of the public who are opposed to GMOs."

    Theoretically, as the crops have been approved for release in the EU, the Commission can choose to ignore the Ministers' decision and overturn the bans, but this would place it squarely against public and political opinion, and so far it has only committed itself to "carefully consider the legal and scientific bases of further proposals."

    If the bans spark a trade war with the US, the case could end up being decided by the World Trade Organization.

  • Environmental information network:
    Ministers unanimously agreed a Directive to set up an EU-wide environmental information network. The proposed Directive would improve access to information on the state of the environment by drawing together existing spatial data, documenting it and removing obstacles to its use. The Commission opposed the agreement for being too weak. It now goes to the European Parliament for a second reading.

  • Ship scrapping, REACH and waste: The Council adopted a conclusion calling on the International Maritime Organization to adopt measures to "ensure the safe and environmentally sound management of ships dismantling". In particular, Ministers want the IMO to establish a mandatory ship reporting scheme similar to that required under the Basel Convention on waste shipments. This would include a contract, ship-recycling plan, green passport and a single list of on-board hazardous materials.

    Ministers also adopted a common position on a new Regulation on waste shipments aimed at incorporating amendments to the Basel Convention and an OECD Council decision which harmonise lists of wastes and their associated control procedures (ENDS Report 342, p 59 ). The Regulation now goes to the Parliament for approval.

    The Council also held a policy debate to the proposed Regulation on the registration, evaluation and authorisation of chemicals (REACH) and agreed that the rules on authorising the highest risk substances should be tightened (see below).

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