European Commission to protect soils

The European Commission has launched the first steps of a strategy intended to protect soils from erosion and pollution, including forthcoming directives on heavy metals and the management of mining waste.

This is the first time that the Commission has addressed the issue of soil protection for its own sake, although a full soil protection strategy is not expected to be produced for a number of years. However, in the meantime, the Commission has stated that it intends to present a number of measures that will benefit soils. These include a daughter directive to the Air Quality Framework Directive, which will relate to heavy metals, to be proposed in 2002; a directive on mining waste – also to be proposed this year, and a document on best available techniques for the management of mining waste; a revision in 2003 of the Sewage Sludge Directive so that it entails a reduction in maximum permitted levels of contaminants in sludge; and a directive on compost and other biowaste aimed at controlling potential contamination, to be proposed by 2004.

“We are now placing soil protection on a level with cleaning up our water and air,” said Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström at the launch. “For too long, we have taken soil for granted. However, soil erosion, the decline in soil quality and the sealing of soil are major problems across the EU. This is a sustainability issue given that these trends are largely irreversible and that soil is vital for our livelihood.”

Around 16% of the land area in the European Union, a total of over 50 million hectares, are affected by land degradation, says the Commission. In candidate countries the figure is even higher, at around 35%. The European Environment Agency also estimates that there are between 300,000 and 1.5 million contaminated sites in Europe. One result of soil degradation is its reduced organic matter content leading to a decrease in its ability to act as a sink for carbon dioxide.

The European Commission also intends to establish a complete picture of the extent of soil contamination throughout the enlarged EU in order to identify and put into action best practice and remedial techniques.

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