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Brussels, 18 July 2006

Commission takes action to combat surface water pollution from dangerous substances

Europe's rivers, lakes and coastal waters, as well as human health, will be better protected against pollution from a range of dangerous substances under new legislation proposed today by the European Commission. The proposed Directive will set limits on concentrations in surface waters of 41 types of pesticides, heavy metals and other dangerous chemical substances that pose a particular risk to animal and plant life in the aquatic environment and to human health. These limits will have to be met by 2015. The proposal will contribute to the Commission's Better Regulation initiative by replacing five older directives, allowing their repeal.

Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said: “One drop of a hazardous substance can be enough to pollute thousands of litres of water so it is vitally important that we properly control chemicals that pose a threat to the environment and human health. These common standards of protection are needed because many river basins and coastal waters cross international boundaries."

The problems of chemical pollution

Pollutants get into the aquatic environment from a variety of sources including agriculture, industry and incineration. Chemical pollution can disrupt aquatic ecosystems by damaging or destroying habitats and the plants and animals that inhabit them, reducing biodiversity. Pollutants may accumulate in the food chain and harm predators consuming contaminated prey. Humans can be exposed to chemical pollutants by eating contaminated fish or seafood, drinking polluted water or through recreational activities.

The proposal

The proposed Directive[1] on environmental quality standards in the field of water policy is the final major piece of legislation needed to support the Water Framework Directive (WFD),[2] the cornerstone of EU water protection policy.

The WFD requires that all EU waters should achieve good status by 2015. It establishes a new regime for the prevention and control of chemical pollution of water. The new proposal will implement this for surface waters; ground waters are already being addressed through the proposal for a ground water Directive[3] currently being considered by the Council of Ministers and European Parliament.

The 41 substances or substance groups for which the proposed Directive sets concentration limits include 33 substances that the Council and Parliament have designated as 'priority substances' [4] for EU action under the WFD. These have been identified as a significant risk to the aquatic environment due to their widespread use and their high concentrations in surface waters. A further eight substances covered by existing legislation on dangerous substances in water[5] are also included. The 41 substances include pesticides, biocides (non-agricultural pesticides) and heavy metals, as well as other groups of substances such as certain flame retardants.

Thirteen of the substances are also specified as 'priority hazardous substances' to which particularly strict limit values will apply because they are toxic, persist in the environment without breaking down, and become increasingly concentrated as they move up the food chain (a process known as bioaccumulation).

Member states will have to achieve the proposed limits for all priority substances by 2015 and cease discharges and emissions of priority hazardous substances into water by 2025.

The limits are based on EU risk assessments for specific chemicals. To ensure a sound scientific basis for the proposal, it was delayed until these were ready. The limits are essential for establishing a high and comparable level of environmental and health protection across the EU and ensuring a 'level playing field' for economic operators. Moreover, chemical pollution of transboundary surface waters can only be addressed by joint cross-border action.

Other EU measures

In drawing up its proposal the Commission carefully considered whether to introduce specific EU-level control measures for priority substances. However, the Impact Assessment of the proposal showed that this would not be justified at this stage given the wide range of existing or forthcoming EU measures to control emissions. These include the Directive on integrated pollution prevention and control (IPPC), the existing Directive and forthcoming Thematic Strategy on pesticides and the REACH proposal for reforming chemicals policy. The new proposal thus leaves broad scope for member states to identify the most appropriate and cost-effective combination of measures to reduce pollution from the targeted substances.

The new limits will replace existing environmental quality standards for certain substances set by five Directives[6] adopted in the 1980s. This legislation will consequently be repealed, helping to streamline EU legislation and reduce the bureaucratic burden on operators.

Next steps

To become law the proposal requires approval by the Council and European Parliament under the co-decision procedure. Once it is adopted, member states will be required to include the measures needed to achieve the agreed standards in their River Basin Management Plans, which must be prepared under the WFD by 2009.
For further information on the Water Framework Directive and the new proposal:

[1] COM(2006) 397. Proposal for a Directive on environmental quality standards in the field of water policy and amending Directive 2000/60/EC. The proposal is accompanied by a Communication on integrated prevention and control of chemical pollution of surface waters in the European Union, COM(2006)398

[2] Directive 2000/60/EC

[3] COM(2003) 550

[4] Decision No 2455/2001/EC establishing the list of priority substances in the field of water policy and amending Directive 2000/60/EC

[5] Council Directive 86/280/EEC on limit values and quality objectives for discharges of certain dangerous substances included in List 1 of the Annex to Directive 76/464/EEC

[6] Directive 82/176/EEC on limit values and quality objectives for mercury discharges from the chlor-alkali electrolysis industry; Council Directive 83/513/EEC on limit values and quality objectives for cadmium discharges; Council Directive 84/156/EEC on limit values and quality objectives for mercury discharges by sectors other than the chlor-alkali electrolysis industry; Council Directive 84/491/EEC on limit values and quality objectives for discharges of hexachlorocyclohexane; and Council Directive 86/280/EEC (see above).

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