UK faces EC legal action over sheep dip pesticides

The Government is facing a double threat of prosecution by the European Commission over sheep dip chemicals in groundwater and drinking water. The actions are prompting a hasty review of policy on sheep dips and have already caused the National Rivers Authority (NRA) to harden its line on disposal via soakaways.

Spent sheep dip is traditionally disposed to holes in the ground known as soakaways. The practice is known to pollute ground and surface waters (ENDS Report 218, pp 8-9 ). A forthcoming report from the NRA and the Scottish and Northern Ireland Forum for Environmental Research is expected to reveal further evidence of widespread pollution.

In 1991, the NRA maintained that there was insufficient evidence for a ban on soakaways when the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) published a statutory code of good agricultural practice for the protection of water (ENDS Report 197, pp 9-10). However, in August it changed its mind, issuing a statement warning farmers that under no circumstances should sheep dip be poured directly into the ground.

The rethink apparently has its origins in a recent letter to the Government from the European Commission alleging an infraction of the 1980 EC Directive on groundwater protection. The allegation concerns the pollution of a private groundwater source in Scotland with sheep dip pesticides.

Although the letter does not reveal the identity of the complainant, it is widely believed to be Brian Anderson, a Tayside resident who suffered acute medical symptoms after drinking from a polluted spring in 1989. Subsequent analyses and investigations by the Tay River Purification Board (RPB) revealed that the supply had been contaminated following spillage of organophosphate sheep dip at a nearby farm.

The complaint alleges that the Government has taken insufficient steps to protect groundwaters from pollution by sheep dips. Organophosphate compounds are classified as "black list" substances under the Directive, and as such Member States must prevent their entry into groundwater.

The Scottish Office replied to the Commission in August, listing five steps taken by the Government to ensure safe disposal of sheep dips. These include measures under the Water Act 1989 to widen the definition of groundwaters and remove the old statutory defence of good agricultural practice against prosecution for water offences.

Further measures include the publication of a code of practice on agricultural pollution in 1992 (ENDS Report 206, p 35 ) and a mail-shot to 17,000 Scottish sheep farmers which underlined the code's warning against soakaways. In this respect the Government's defence is stronger in Scotland than it would be in England or Wales because the Scottish version of the code is categorical about the unacceptability of soakaways while MAFF's version is not.

The final defence is that on 10 August the Scottish Office issued Directions to the RPBs and other pollution control bodies requiring the enforcement of the groundwater Directive.

The NRA's forthcoming annual report will reveal that a similar Direction has been issued by the Department of the Environment (DoE) to the NRA.

The Government has received notice of a second complaint from the Commission, but this time in relation to breaches of the 1980 Directive on drinking water quality. Although the correspondence is not specific as to the source of the complaint, at least part is believed to have come from Dr Lewis Routledge, a resident in the Newcastle area, who lodged a complaint in 1989 alleging breaches of the 0.1µg/l limit on pesticides in drinking water.

Dr Routledge's family has suffered acute medical symptoms from organophosphate poisoning, and his complaint alleges that sheep dip pesticides have been entering drinking water supplies in many parts of Britain since at least 1982. The complaint specifically alleges that incidents affected a Newcastle and Gateshead Water Company (now North East Water) supply in July 1985, as well as a Welsh Water supply at Betwys-y-Coed in August of the same year.

The DoE has yet to reply to the allegations, but in doing so is likely to refer to the work of the Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) in safeguarding water quality. The DWI published a report in 1992 which showed that, in 1990, 20 of the 39 water companies in England and Wales had adequate monitoring arrangements for diazinon, the most widely used organophosphate pesticide in sheep dip.

The report noted four exceedances of the 0.1µg/l standard for diazinon during the year, all of which were in surface waters, and the maximum concentration recorded was 0.15µg/l. No other sheep dip organophosphates, such as chlorfenvinphos or propetamphos, exceeded 0.1µg/l but the number of companies monitoring for these compounds was not given.

The Commission's response to the DoE's evidence on the levels of organophosphates in drinking water will be informative because the Directive does not lay down any protocols in the event of failure. However, the Government will have to show that it has taken the "necessary measures", as required by Article 19 of the Directive, to ensure that water supplies comply with the EC standards.

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