Ministers agree air pollution rules, but row again on climate change

New rules on hazardous waste incineration and emissions from petrol stations and vans were agreed at the EC Environment Council on 28-29 June. But the meeting brought little progress on measures to control ozone depleting chemicals, climate change and packaging waste.

Probably the most contentious issue at the Council was once again the European Commission's proposed carbon/energy tax and the links which some Member States are making between this and the EC's ratification of the UN Convention on Climate Change, agreed at last summer's Earth Summit.

The UK appeared to have dashed all hopes of an agreement on a Community carbon/energy tax in May when it announced fundamental objections to the proposal for the first time (ENDS Report 220, p 23 ). At a meeting of EC Finance Ministers on 7 June, there was no substantive discussion on the UK's counter-proposal for an optional tax.

The Environment Council brought a renewed attempt by the Danish Presidency of the EC to get the UK behind the tax. According to the UK delegation, attempts were made to bounce Environment Secretary John Gummer to sign a declaration supporting the need for an early agreement on the tax. Mr Gummer refused to play, and the initiative fell apart as similar moves have done before when it became clear that there is no consensus among the other eleven Member States on how the tax regime should be framed.

But the issue refused to go away. The Dutch and German delegations then refused to allow a Decision on ratification of the Convention on Climate Change by the EC to go through on the nod, as expected. They and four other Member States had signed a declaration in March which appeared to make their agreement to ratification by the EC conditional on the willingness of the other six not to block the carbon/energy tax (ENDS Report 218, pp 35-36 ).

The Dutch and German move caused some bad feeling, since it had been made clear by the Danish Presidency in March that the declaration by the pro-tax countries should not detract from adoption of the ratification Decision, which had already been agreed in principle at that meeting.

Where this leaves ratification of the Convention is not clear. The EC has already agreed to ratify by the end of 1993, and failure to do so will damage its standing in the international negotiations on the application and subsequent amendment of the Convention. In principle there is no legal obstacle to Member States ratifying the Convention individually, but it is the accepted convention that they and the Community should ratify international treaties simultaneously.

It will now be for the Belgians, who took over the EC Presidency on 1 July, to unblock the logjam. The Belgians are known to be keen to get an agreement on the carbon/energy tax, and initial indications are that they will seek to accommodate the UK's objections to push the measure through.

Among the measures agreed by the Council was the so-called Stage I Directive dealing with emissions of volatile organic compounds from petrol storage and distribution. A common position was agreed despite some outstanding objections from Germany, and the legislation will now go to the European Parliament for a second reading prior to its formal adoption.

The final text appears to be broadly in line with that reported in May (ENDS Report 220, p 31 ). Among the more contentious issues in the negotiations was the extent to which smaller service stations would have to fit vapour return lines to collect VOCs emitted during tanker unloading.

The smallest, with an annual throughput of 100,000 litres or less, have now been exempted altogether. For those with a throughput of less than 500,000 litres, the Directive allows Member States to provide derogations from control where VOC emissions are unlikely to contribute significantly to environmental or health problems. About 4,700 of the UK's service stations, representing only 3-4% of total petrol throughput, are candidates for derogation. It will be some time before the Government decides how far to take advantage of the derogation provisions.

The Directive will enter into force 12 months after it is formally notified, suggesting entry into force will be around the end of 1994. Existing service stations with an annual petrol throughput of over 1.0 million litres will have to comply with the VOC controls three years thereafter, and those with throughputs of 0.5-1.0 million litres and below 0.5 litres will follow at three-year intervals.

A problem raised late in the day by the UK oil industry was that the Directive, in aiming to close the petrol distribution chain, would have barred the use of dipsticks. These are the only legal means of measuring petrol levels in road tankers in Eire and the UK. In the event, the dipstick will survive, albeit only for four years after the Directive's entry into force on new tankers, but indefinitely on existing tankers.

Ministers also agreed the Directive on hazardous waste incineration. In doing so they altered its legal base from the free trade Article 100A to the environmental Article 130S of the EC Treaty, and for that reason the legislation will have to go back to the European Parliament before it can be formally adopted. The legal base of waste Directives has caused some friction between the EC institutions in recent years (see pp 44-45 ), and it is by no means a foregone conclusion that Parliament will accept this latest development.

The text of the Directive was not available as ENDS went to press, but it is clear that there have been significant amendments to the provisions originally proposed by the Commission on air and water pollution control.

One of the Commission's proposals was that liquid discharges from flue gas scrubbing systems should be banned.

Incinerator operators complained that this would add significantly to their costs to no great environmental benefit. The final text goes some way to meeting their objections, but with the promise that the Community will soon return to the matter.

The Directive is understood to require liquid discharges from air pollution control units to be reduced as far as possible, and the mass of the heavy metals and dioxins released in this way should be less than that which may be emitted to air under the Directive. And for the future, the Commission is to propose specific discharge limits within two years of the Directive's adoption.

Most of the limits on emissions to air proposed by the Commission have been significantly relaxed. For parameters other than metals and dioxins, the final figures are given in the table below. This shows that the original limits have at least been doubled.

The picture has been complicated slightly by the inclusion of an additional set of limits where compliance is measured on a 97 percentile basis - that is, where 97% rather than all of the measurements made over the period concerned must be within the limits laid down. It is not clear whether Member States will be able to choose between these two options, or whether incinerator operators will have to meet all the limits laid down.

The original proposal also contained limits for heavy metals. These applied to mercury, to cadmium and thallium taken together, and then to another ten metals taken together. The limits in the first two cases were 0.05mg/m3, and 0.5mg/m3 in the third. These figures have been retained in the final text, but only for new incinerators. For existing plants limits twice as high will apply in each case, and they will have to comply with these standards 42 months after the Directive's adoption.

However, the Directive goes on to provide that the Commission must report to the Council before December 2000 on technical advances in emission abatement and on progress in the application of the Directive, and come forward with proposals for revising the emission limits.

Earlier this year, a hearing in the House of Commons revealed that the UK was seeking another two substantial changes to the Directive (ENDS Report 217, pp 28-29 ).

The Commission had proposed that a guide value rather than a binding emission limit should be established for dioxins and furans, and that this should be set at 0.1ng/m3. The UK objected strongly to this on the grounds of cost, practicability of measurement and environmental need, and proposed a guide value of 1.0ng/m3 instead.

However, in both Germany and the Netherlands a limit of 0.1ng/m3 has been written into law, and some new incinerator projects in the UK have been designed to meet this as well. The European Parliament also pressed strongly for this standard.

The UK was forced to concede. A binding limit of 0.1ng/m3 will now come into force in January 1997. However, the UK did succeed in making this conditional on a report from the Commission confirming that a reliable method of measuring dioxins and furans is available.

Secondly, the UK had been pressing for certain incinerators to be excluded from the Directive's scope, notably all sewage sludge incinerators, crematoria, and small clinical waste incinerators. These demands were secured up to a point.

The precise language of the final text is not available, but it is believed to say broadly that sewage sludge and clinical waste are not covered by the Directive provided they do not contain constituents which render them "hazardous". Member States will be able to decide for themselves how to interpret this requirement, subject to existing EC Directives on waste, until a Community waste catalogue establishing common definitions of what is "hazardous" is completed. This project was due to be completed this year, but is running well behind schedule. Crematoria are believed to have been excluded from control, but in a Council minute rather than in the Directive itself.

A third Directive was formally adopted at the Council. This brings emission standards for vans broadly into line with those already set for cars. The standards will be phased in from October 1993 to October 1994. The Commission has been asked to bring forward proposals for a further tightening of the limits for vans by the end of 1993, for agreement by the Council not later than the end of 1994.

The new Directive drew objections from the Dutch, who wanted to go further and announced that they will promote sales of vans meeting stricter standards by means of fiscal incentives. The Commission's reply, which appears to break new ground in its attempts to control national measures which go beyond those laid down by EC law, was that under Article 100A of the EC Treaty Member States may introduce such measures only if they voted against EC Directives when these were adopted. The subsequent debate failed to resolve the issue, and it may be that the Commission will test its powers with a case in the European Court of Justice.

Negotiations on a second draft Directive on emissions from cars, setting tighter limits to come into force in 1996/7 and outlining a strategy for further reductions beyond 2000 (ENDS Report 216, p 38 ), are less advanced, and centred at the Council on the use of fiscal instruments to promote clean cars and what the second-stage standards should be. Ministers appear likely to agree the Directive later this year.

The Council held a prolonged debate on packaging. Germany was confronted with objections from several Member States to the growing volume of waste packaging which is being exported from Germany as a consequence of its Packaging Ordinance, disrupting recycling industries in other countries. The German delegation expressed its regrets at the negative effects of the legislation, and offered to co-operate in seeking solutions to them.

Limited progress was made on the draft Directive on packaging waste, not least because the Danes organised only one official meeting on the proposal during their six-month term in the Presidency. The Belgians promised to make it one of the priorities of their Presidency.

The debate on the Directive is believed to have focused on the packaging waste recovery and recycling targets proposed by the Commission, the capacity of the market to absorb recycled materials, and the role which prevention of packaging waste at source should play in the EC regime. There appears to be an emerging majority view that the proposal, which sets uniform targets of 90% recovery and 60% recycling to be achieved ten years after the Directive enters into force for each packaging material, does not discriminate sufficiently between different materials.

The Council's discussions on a new proposal on ozone depleting substances are presented in the article below. Other issues discussed at the meeting included the EC's ratification of the UN Convention on biodiversity, which will now proceed as planned by the end of 1993.

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