Priority substances debated

UK utility leaders joined a gathering of European water quality experts to discuss priority substances, at a round table event hosted by Scottish Water.
Claire Smith reports

The impact for the water industry of a proposed European directive on pollution came under scrutiny from experts at a discussion hosted by Scottish Water in Edinburgh on 19 May. The Priority Substances Directive (PSD) covers the management of priority hazardous substances in water and
the far-reaching effect they can have on the environment.

Representatives from water authorities in Sweden, Netherlands and Finland joined UK industry experts to discuss proposed additions to the existing list of priority substances. If the EU proposals are adopted new minimum environmental quality standards will be set for a range of chemicals - mostly related to agricultural and pharmaceutical products.

Jorge Rodriguez Romero, the EC environmental policy officer responsible for developing the proposal told delegates: "this legislation would identify those chemicals that pose a threat to the aquatic environment." If approved by the European Parliament the new proposals could become effective by 2015.

The proposed list of new priority substances includes the herbicides aclonifen, terbutryn, heptachlor and methyl 5; the insecticides cybutryne and dichlorvos; the fungicide quinoxyfen; and pesticide dicofol. Substances originating from pharmaceutical sources include the anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac; contraceptives alpha ethinylestradiol and beta estradiol; and the painkiller ibuprofen.

The new directive would also introduce minimum levels for flame retardant percfluorooctaine sulfonic acid, fabric protector hexabromocyclododecane, and for cyanides, certain dioxins and zinc. Romero, speaking by remote link from Brussels, told round table members: "The best solution is not the fastest. The best solution is the cost effective one."

As well as considering the potential benefits, he said it was also necessary to consider the economic and environmental costs of introducing the new pollution controls. "We have to look at the whole cycle."

He said it was also important to consider the amount of energy used and the carbon footprint of any new technology which the water industry would be required to adopt.

Mark Williams, environmental regulation & climate change manager for Scottish Water welcomed the discussion, saying: "We have got a huge opportunity with this directive to move forward from the thinking of the past."

Howard Brett, wastewater strategy manager for Thames Water Utilities, said the directive could mean huge costs for water authorities obliged to introduce a range of new treatment technology. He said the additional costs would inevitably be passed on to consumers.

"I want to understand what benefits the priority substance directive is going to offer - and we have to ask what are the risks posed by some of these substances. I would like to see better justification for some of these substances proposed."

Arthur Thornton, a consultant for Atkins Water, said there was a need to question the evidence of the risks involved and the way the proposed acceptable levels had been calculated: "We are getting data, but we can only get it with really good information."

And Clive Harward, head of water quality & environmental performance for Anglian Water Services also stressed the need for research: "This must be based on sound scientific evidence and there also needs to be robust economic impact assessment that considers costs and benefits."

Thornton said his company had direct experience of reducing pollution at source, having worked on a Scottish Water initiative to promote sustainable land management - reducing pollution by working directly with farmers. Harward suggested the issue showed a need for a link between agricultural policy and water policy. Anders Finnson of the Swedish Water & Wastewater Association said the issue of pharmaceuticals in wastewater posed particular difficulties: "Looking into the drugs which may cause problems for the water environment then it is not always the new drugs or the drugs which are available on prescription - it is the drugs which are sold over the counter.

"These are chemicals that have been in use for decades, which we have just realised are causing problems to human health."

Finnson also said the sources of chemical pollution could sometimes be hard to find. As an example he cited cadmium - which features on the current list of priority hazardous substances. He said the solid yellow colour used by watercolour artists was a major source of cadmium in water. Michael Bentvelsen of the Dutch Association of Regional Water Authorities stressed it was sometimes hard to ascertain sources of pollution which could impact water quality. "In our society it is necessary to produce some new chemicals - then when it is used it is somebody else's problem."

Romero agreed that it was important to consider costs , but said EU research suggested three-quarters of Europeans rated environmental pollution as an important issue. However he said the whole burden of the new legislation should not fall upon the water industry, saying: "We should focus firstly on treating pollution at source."

The discussion was chaired by Professor Paul Jowitt of Heriot Watt University.

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