A balloon made to be pricked

The Government's claim that the UK has an unparalleled - sometimes a virtually unparalleled - record of complying with EC environmental legislation has become a mite too insistent of late, and so one reaction to the ruling of the Advocate-General to the European Court of Justice that the UK had failed to meet EC limits for nitrate in more than 20 drinking water supply zones was a sense of relief. The ruling must still be confirmed by the Court itself, but experience suggests that its verdict is unlikely to be any different.

In defending its record of compliance with the EC Directive on drinking water, the Government has sought persistently to blame the European Commission for allegedly changing the rules at the end of 1987. Until then, it is said, the Directive had generally been interpreted to mean that the limits set for several dozen contaminants in drinking water should be taken as annual averages. Then the Commission came along and insisted that they were maxima which must not be exceeded at any time. This abrupt about-turn made the difference between a small and inexpensive water clean-up programme, and today's extremely costly programme - a lengthy one which, of course, cannot be completed overnight.

An ENDS article on the nitrate problem written early in 1983 contains a very different version of events. The EC Directive, it says, "appears to be quite unambiguous in its requirements - the 50mg/l standard (for nitrate), a 'maximum admissible concentration', is one which should not be exceeded at any time. But in a circular issued to the water authorities last year, the Department of the Environment advised that the EC limit should be treated as an average - and water authorities are treating this as an annual average - to which concentrations may rise. According to the European Commission, the DoE's advice appears to be a clear breach of the Directive." If ENDS could consult the Commission on the question, then the DoE could have done so - and possibly did do so - as well.

What happened behind the scenes at the time was that the DoE failed to persuade the Ministry of Agriculture that nitrate leaching from agricultural land should be controlled at source by means of local controls on farming practices. The best part of a decade was lost before the tide turned. By the end of the 1980s, more water sources had been contaminated with nitrate, and consumers have been left to pick up the extra water treatment bill. The Advocate-General's verdict is therefore an appropriate conclusion to that saga.

A more general lesson has been learned from the problems caused by the drinking water Directive. New EC legislation is more specific about the detailed rules which determine how environmental standards should be applied. But another major problem remains to be resolved. The Government is right when it complains that the level playing-field which should stem from the implementation and enforcement of EC laws is far from being established. And its recent proposal for an EC audit inspectorate to improve oversight of Member States' compliance with EC laws could not have come from a Government which was fearful of the consequences.

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