Major shift in water pollution policy as EC scraps draft rules

Ten legislative proposals on the environment dating as far back as 1975 have been withdrawn by the European Commission.1 Most are no longer of any great significance, but the Commission's decision not to proceed with two proposals on dangerous substances in water presages a major change in policy in this area.

The list of proposals which have been culled runs to several dozen items and is not confined to the environment. Among the environmental measures now being withdrawn are:

  • Pollution from wood pulp mills: Issued in 1975, this proposal was the Commission's first attempt to introduce legislation governing pollution from a particular industrial sector. It was quickly killed off and has been no more than a museum piece for years. Only one sector, the titanium dioxide industry, has since been covered by its own EC legislation, although sectoral pollution control rules are likely to re-emerge onto the legislative agenda once the forthcoming Directive on integrated pollution prevention and control (IPPC) (ENDS Report 217, pp 36-38 ) has been adopted.

  • Noise emissions from rail-mounted vehicles: This proposal was issued in 1983, but measures in this area will now be left to Member States in accordance with the subsidiarity doctrine.

  • Waste dumping at sea: The Commission's legislative intentions in this area, announced in 1985, have been largely overtaken by events in other fora, notably the Oslo Commission and the periodic ministerial meetings on the North Sea. Industrial waste dumping at sea has now been largely phased out as a result of agreements in these fora, while sewage sludge dumping is due to end in 1998 and is in any event covered by the 1991 EC Directive on wastewater treatment.

  • Chromium in sewage sludge: Limits on the addition of most heavy metals to agricultural land via sewage sludge were set by a 1986 Directive. None was set at the time for chromium, but in 1988 the Commission issued a proposal to plug this gap (ENDS Report 167, pp 25-26). It is this which has now been withdrawn.

  • Dangerous substances in water: Two proposals in this area have been withdrawn. Both were made under the 1976 "framework" Directive on dangerous substances in the aquatic environment.

    One, issued in 1986, would have been the first to set water quality standards (EQSs) at EC level for a "grey list" substance - in this case chromium (ENDS Report 132, pp 23-24). The second, issued in 1990, contained a list of 15 substances - mostly pesticides - which the Commission wanted to place on the "black list". Once the list had been agreed, it was the Commission's intention to propose daughter Directives containing discharge limits and EQSs for each substance, and these would have been subject to agreement by qualified majority vote for the first time (ENDS Report 181, pp 36-37).

    The scrapping of these two proposals is of considerable significance. It appears to mark the end of the Commission's ambitions to carry on issuing daughter Directives for black list substances. Only seven such Directives, covering 17 substances, have been adopted since 1976, and it has been plain for some time that there was little prospect of the Commission working its way through its list of 109 candidates for the black list, let alone any other new candidates, using this approach in anything like a reasonable time.

    Likewise, the attempt to develop a series of daughter Directives on grey list substances has foundered at the first hurdle, and no more is likely to be heard on the issue from Brussels.

    A spokesman for the Commission confirmed to ENDS that its programme of daughter Directives was now "asleep". However, he added that there may still be a case for harmonised Community measures for some dangerous substances, such as mothproofing agents.

    The Commission is now rewriting the 1976 Directive in the light of other developments in EC environmental policy. These include the IPPC Directive, due to be issued as a formal proposal in September, the 1991 Directive on plant protection products, a new proposal on biocides (see pp 37-38 ), and a Regulation adopted last year which has established a risk assessment programme for older or "existing" chemicals (ENDS Report 218, pp 38-40 ).

    The IPPC Directive will pave the way to sector-by-sector limits on discharges of dangerous substances. These will initially be set by Member States in accordance with the "best available techniques not entailing excessive cost", but may subsequently be harmonised at EC level.

    This programme will deal with the major point sources of dangerous substances. However, the Commission's spokesman noted that in rewriting the 1976 Directive in the light of IPPC "we must be careful not to lose the good thing about it - it was a good safeguard on the quality objective side." UK observers will no doubt reflect on the irony of the Commission now accepting that EQSs have a role in safeguarding the aquatic environment, particularly from diffuse discharges. One of the most bitter and prolonged disputes in the EC's environmental policy was the insistence of the Commission and most other Member States that there was no need to set EQSs for black list substances at Community level, with the UK being the sole proponent of this approach.

    The Commission's immediate goal is to complete a priority-setting exercise to identify substances for control from its own existing priority candidate list, together with a priority list and a second "reference" list agreed at the third North Sea conference in 1990.2 The current hope is to publish the results of this exercise in December. Member States and industry will then be given time to respond before the Commission presents a final version of the paper to the next North Sea conference in Copenhagen in 1995.

    What follows is still up in the air, but one possibility is that the Commission may propose that Member States should themselves carry out a risk assessment exercise, based on an agreed methodology, to identify their own black list candidates for control. It is not yet clear whether the Commission will then seek to harmonise Member States' national control measures, as it did with the black list Directives, or leave this entirely to their discretion.

    This new approach to water pollution policy is likely to be linked closely for the first time to the EC's chemicals policy. A substantial body of aquatic toxicity data will be generated by the Community's programmes on existing chemicals, crop protection products and biocides in the coming years, and this is likely to provide a firmer basis for formal risk assessments of the kind the Commission has in mind. Little more can be said for the moment about where this shift will eventually take the EC's water pollution policy.

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