Governmental failure to protect shellfish waters risking public health

The failure of successive governments to reduce pollution in shellfish waters is purely due to financial concerns and has caused sickness and unscrupulous suppliers to sell molluscs which risk public health.

Peter Scott, an environmental specialist at the Barnstaple, Devon-based law firm, Toller Beattie, has told edie that successive governments from the Thatcher era onwards have failed to implement the EU’s Shellfish Waters Directive, requiring extremely stringent water quality levels, for financial reasons. The lawyer has acted on behalf of shellfish producers in providing documents to the European Commission for its prosecution of the UK last year over failure to implement the Directive (see related story). “Consumers of shellfish have not had the protection from pollution to which they have a legal right,” Beattie told edie. “Failure to provide protection has doubtless caused sickness.”

Although designations have considerably increased under Labour, and the Environment Agency released a policy document on shellfish waters last month, Beattie said that standards had been set “to keep the European Commission at bay in order not to spend the amounts of money that should have been spent in the eighties”, with the Government taking the view that it “will not designate any waters which require money to improve them”. “The Environment Agency is producing policy in a shameless attempt to sabotage the full implementation of the European Directive, designed to protect the environment and consumers,” the lawyer said. According to Beattie, the policy statement seeks to achieve, without any fixed timescale, a lower environmental standard than the standards which the Directive requires member states to endeavour to achieve, and makes it clear that “where that lower standard is achieved, nothing effective will be done to improve it to the higher standard”.

As a result, Toller Beatty has sent a detailed analysis of the policy to the EC and suggested that it should take the UK to the European Court of Justice for permitting DEFRA “to continue to be in breach of obligations under the Directive for as long as possible”.

When shellfish are taken from one of more than 160 UK designated sites, the existing controls work “reasonably well”, Beattie said. However a number of unscrupulous operators, including some “fairly large ones”, illegally take shellfish from other areas, putting false labels of origin on them, and creating a health risk to consumers, especially in mainland Europe, where most shellfish is consumed, he said.

One of the disincentives of implementing the Directive, Beattie explained, is that it requires water standards of less than ten faecal coliforms per 100 ml of water in shellfish waters, at least 200 times stricter than the Bathing Waters Directive. Sewage outfalls in the wrong places and inadequately designed CSOs – sewage systems – have made it impossible for water companies to raise standards to the levels required without vast injections of cash.

However, according to Beattie, it is “certainly feasible for the Government to adequately implement the Directive”. “It is a question of providing sufficient funds and getting the Environment Agency to seriously address diffuse pollution and CSOs,” he said, adding that implementation of the Directive will have to be considered anyway in order to comply with the Water Framework Directive (see related story).

A DEFRA spokesperson confirmed that the Government aims to reach higher standards, but that it would probably not be possible for another 10 years. Since the Labour government came to office it has increased the number of designated shellfish sites by 400% and has instructed water companies to invest £600 million for coastal water improvements, £50 million of which is earmarked for shellfish waters.

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