Dangerous Substances Directive making only slow progress

A European Commission report undertaken by UK water research organisation WRc, assessing the implementation of a key element of the 1976 Dangerous Substances Directive, has shown that progress in implementation has been slow, with most member states failing to comply.


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The directive was one of the first water related directives to be adopted, and had the ambitious objective of regulating potential aquatic pollution by thousands of then-current chemicals. It covered discharges to inland surface waters, territorial waters, inland coastal waters and groundwater, though groundwater was subsequently taken out and dealt with in a separate directive.

The WRc report looks at the work undertaken to fulfil Article Seven of the Directive. This article calls on member states to establish pollution reduction programmes for all 139 tentative List II substances – those that have a negative effect on the aquatic environment. The Directive mainly covers List I substances – selected on the basis of their persistence, toxicity and bioaccumulation – for which absolute limit values and environmental quality objectives were set.

As part of their Article Seven requirements, states had to set water quality objectives and make industries seek authorisation for discharging List II substances.

Progress in implementation has been so slow that at the beginning of the 1990s, the EC decided to begin infringement procedures against most member states. Most of the cases are now before the European Court of Justice and there have already been several rulings against various countries – Portugal, Greece, Spain, Italy, Luxembourg, Belgium and Germany. The report notes that some member states have only just begun pollution reduction programmes.

In its report, WRc has recommended that member states work to improve their compliance as they prepare for the directive to be replaced by the generic Water Framework Directive. This will replace the majority of existing EU water directives in 2013.

The consultant’s report indicates the difficulty of obtaining information – just ten member states provided WRc with information on their pollution reduction programmes, and some of this information covered only limited substances or particular river basins. WRc also found that countries’ approaches to implementation varied. Denmark and Portugal listed all List II and candidate substances as relevant to their national programmes, while other states selected a limited number of substances from the list based on various criteria including which ones were found above detection limits.

Belgium did not select any of the substances as being of national concern although its Flanders and Walloon regions identified a significant number, and Italy did not select any as being of concern. Thirteen states have legislation requiring authorisation for List II discharges to surface waters, and nine member states have legislation on discharges to sewers. Only Luxembourg, claimed not to discharge any List II substances, while Sweden provided no information at all on its discharges.

Ten member states have set up legally-enforceable Environmental Quality Standards (EQSs) for List II substances, and a further four have set up non-statutory EQSs. Only one country, Denmark, has statutory EQSs for all 139 substances.

Countries’ approaches to water quality objectives also varied, as did their approaches to limiting List II substance use. Monitoring of List II substances also varied considerably from country to country, not only from station to station but year to year.

As EU member states have been undertaking work on the Directive since the completion of the WRc report, which is based on data collected before June 2000, a follow-up is planned for 2003.

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