Groundwater directive to keep some of its teeth

The European Parliament blocked attempts to make groundwater protection the business of individual EU states when it voted on the EU Groundwater Directive on Wednesday.

In the latest development in the battle over the law designed to protect groundwater from pollution by toxic chemicals like pesticides, MEPs blocked proposals to make most of it non-binding. The draft imposes EU-wide limits on toxic nitrates and pesticides in groundwater, with EU countries required to keep nitrate levels below 50mg per litre - equivalent to the legal limit for drinking water.

MEPs suggested special EU aid to help farmers adapt when they have to change agricultural practices in line with the new rules.

The new draft "does not impose single Europe-wide standards on other chemicals," although it "does seek to harmonise methods for measuring potential pollutants," MEPs said in a statement.

Environmental groups say that strong pressure from industry led the Council to propose the changes in the first place (see related story). If accepted, these would have made the directive "little more than a statement of intent," the European Environmental Bureau and Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said.

Scheuer, EEB's EU Policy Director, said: "Stopping the most dangerous chemicals from getting into groundwater, which is the source of drinking water for two-thirds of EU citizens, can't be left to national discretion. We are therefore glad that Parliament maintained its tradition of fighting for enforceable and EU-wide legal requirements in EU environmental law and opposed the Council's laissez-faire attitude."

But while they welcomed the binding limits that remain in the draft, obliging producers and users of chemicals to find safer alternatives, the EEB and RSBP objected to the series of exemptions it contains.

Any chemical, such as an agricultural pesticide, authorised by the EU for a "specific use" is exempted. This is a loophole that will allow pesticides and industrial carcinogenic chemicals to continue polluting ground and drinking water, the European Environmental Bureau and the WWF said.

Rob Cunningham of RSPB commented: "We regret Parliament's decision to allow carcinogens and other unacceptable chemicals to pollute groundwater simply because they have been authorised for some specific use."

"This is scientifically flawed and undermines established EU practice. We believe that poor legal drafting and technical voting tactics have created this imbroglio: something which must be rectified in impending negotiations with Member States and the Commission,"

The groups also complained about the draft's vague wording when it comes to diffuse pollution, which the draft says must be tackled whenever "technically possible".

The directive will next be discussed by the Council and Parliament until they reach an agreement, and will then go back for its third reading by the Parliament later this year.

Goska Romanowicz



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