Chemical weapons

The European Commission has adopted the Priority Substances Directive, which aims to guard against risk from 33 chemicals. Merlin Hyman reports on the the progress of the regulations.

Article 16 of the Water Framework Directive (WFD) set out a strategy for dealing with chemical pollution of water, and as a first step of this strategy a list of priority substances was adopted identifying 33 substances of priority concern at EU level.
As a second step, the European Commission has now adopted a proposed Priority Substances Directive, which "aims to ensure a high level of protection against risks to or via the aquatic environment stemming from 33 chemical substances by setting environmental quality standards".

The Environmental Industries Commission's (EIC) Water Pollution Control Working Group has been actively engaged in the development of the proposed Priority Substances Directive as part of the EC's Expert Advisory Forum on Priority Substances and Pollution Control.

The Expert Advisory Forum has been the central steering group of the preparatory work under Article 16 of the WFD.

As part of its continuing involvement in the proposed Priority Substances Directive, the forum will shortly be ratified as a working group to support implementation of the directive.

This is much more than a name change because it will formalise the role played by the forum, and will give the group more power to initiate work in support of the directive's implementation.

So what are the priority substances? Annex 1 of the proposed directive lists the 33 priority substances covered and the environmental quality standards for each one.
These substances have been identified as a significant risk to the aquatic environment due to their widespread use and their high concentrations in surface waters.

Within the list, 11 substances have been identified as priority hazardous substances that are of particular concern for the inland, transitional, coastal and territorial waters. These substances will be subject to cessation or phasing out of discharges, emissions and losses within an appropriate timetable that shall not exceed 20 years.

A further 14 were identified as being subject to review for identification as possible
priority hazardous substances - the remaining eight are normal priority substances.

Quality standards
Under the proposed EU directive, environmental quality standards are differentiated for inland surface waters (rivers and lakes) and other surface waters (transitional, coastal and territorial waters).

These environmental quality standards are set out in Article 2 and Annex 1 of the directive, and are based on EU risk assessments for specific chemicals.
The directive will establish two types of quality standards:
  • Average concentrations - one for protection against long-term and chronic effects
  • Maximum allowable concentrations - for short-term, direct and acute eco-toxic effects
Member states will be able to reduce costs by designating transitional areas of exceedance, where the cost of reducing concentrations of one or more pollutants below the relevant environmental quality standards are disproportionate.

The directive will also establish an inventory of discharges, emissions and losses to check whether the objectives of reduction or cessation are met.

The inventory will allow compliance checking of the objectives on reduction of discharges, emissions and losses for priority substances and cessation or phase out of discharges, emissions and losses for priority hazardous substances.

Member states will have to achieve the proposed limits for all priority substances by 2015 - the deadline in the WFD for all water bodies to achieve good chemical water quality status - and cease discharges and emissions of priority hazardous substances into water by 2025.

The impact assessment of the proposed directive carried out by the EC concludes that costs to all industries could be in range of £490M a year.

A UKWIR study in 2004 concluded that for sewage treatment, if end-of-
pipe measures were the principal method of meeting environmental quality standards, total costs in the UK could be £6B. But the EC Impact Assessment concludes that most measures will be to reduce emissions rather than end-of-pipe.

Also, the transitional area of exceedance approach provides a get-out on the grounds that measures are technically not feasible or disproportionately expensive.

The costs for WwTWs (and therefore business opportunities for pollution control technologies) are impossible to estimate, but likely to be far lower than the UKWIR study suggested.

Area objectives
The first implication of the directive is likely to be in monitoring of the current situation. A survey is planned in 2009 across all member states to create a benchmark for environmental quality standards.

Following EIC lobbying to encourage the rapid implementation of the WFD, Defra recently published the River Basin Planning Guidance to the Environment Agency (EA) in accordance with the WFD.

The guidance sets out ministerial expectations for the key steps and principles of the river basin planning process. And it states that, for surface waters, the EA will need to set objectives for each water body in relation to: preventing deterioration; achieving or maintaining a particular status class; cessation/reduction of pollution from priority substances and priority hazardous substances and, where relevant, protected area objectives.

The guidance instructs the EA to make full use of the alternative objectives, delayed deadlines and weaker targets in implementing the WFD. EIC's Water Pollution Control Working Group has expressed considerable concern at the minimalist approach Defra has adopted, and will monitor the detailed implementation steps closely to ensure that the directive is being followed.

Merlin Hyman is director of the EIC. T: 0207 935 1675.

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