REACH stumbles over latest hurdle
The latest manifestation of the controversial REACH agreement has been passed by European ministers, but environmentalists claim it has had more teeth knocked out in the process.The Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals (REACH) regulations are the most complicated piece of legislation ever to be drawn up by Brussels and have been subjected to fierce lobbying both from industry and green groups.
Politicians have been left with the task of trying to conjure up a set of regulations that has the desired effect - protecting the public and planet from harmful chemicals - without causing excessive damage to business interests and driving industry out of Europe.
While member states reached an agreement at the Competitiveness Council this week, industry groups and environmentalists remain as far apart as ever.
And, at this stage, it seems the politicians are leaning towards industry.
At the EU's plenary session Liberals and Greens surprised pundits when they managed to vote through an amendment which would oblige companies to substitute hazardous chemicals for safer ones where available (see related story).
But this has been reversed by the member states, and the re-worded document simply requires companies to consider the alternatives when using toxins, but there is no obligation for them to implement them.
The accord now reached, however, means the proposals are now likely to progress relatively smoothly through the remaining legislative maze and could become an EC directive early next year.
Lord Sainsbury, who chaired the Competitiveness Council welcomed the successful outcome: "We are delighted that these long-running Council negotiations on REACH have been brought to a successful conclusion," he said.
"We thank the European Parliament, all Member States, and the Commission, for their commitment and co operation which has enabled us to achieve a balanced and workable compromise.
"The agreement achieved here today offers the opportunity to achieve proper protection of humans and the environment whilst maintaining the competitiveness of European industry.
"REACH will provide the tools necessary to provide detailed information on some 30,000 substances used in the EU, while strengthening the controls covering the substances of most concern.
"This will allow for a huge leap forward in our awareness of the impact of chemicals and other substances and so ensuring the highest level of protection for European citizens."
European Commission Vice-President Günter Verheugen said the agreement put an end to a long period of uncertainty for industry and helped them plan for the task of meeting the new requirements.
"The Council's agreement is a reasonable compromise. We have succeeded in making REACH more effective and more workable," he said.
"And we have succeeded in maintaining the competitiveness of EU industry and - a crucial point- reducing the burden for small and medium-sized companies."
Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas added: "This agreement will represent a marked improvement in the protection of health and the environment.
"It will reduce chemical related disease and will allow users and consumers to make informed choices about the substances they come in contact with.
"It will also encourage innovation and give a strong incentive to industry to replace dangerous chemicals with safer ones. This agreement presents to our citizens a chance for a healthier life and a safer environment."
Judith Hackitt, director general of the Chemical Industry Association welcomed the latest news.
"We are well on the way to a workable REACH which the industry can live with and which will deliver benefits and reassurance to society," she said.
"We can now accelerate the process of preparing industry to make sure it really works in practice. CIA is very keen to use the wealth of knowledge it has built up over the last five years to help all industries who will be affected by REACH to prepare for implementation."
But a broad coalition of environmental and health organisations were less impressed by the meeting's outcome.
WWF called the latest development a 'chemical betrayal', with spokesman Colin Butfield saying: "This failure has been driven by the German government's protectionist policy toward its chemicals industry, and though other governments - including Britain's - lobbied hard in the last few weeks for genuine environmental concessions, these were sadly not achieved.
"We hope the damage can be undone before REACH becomes law.
"This is a tragedy and may have profound implications for the health of the people and wildlife of Europe - as well as costing the NHS, and thus the British taxpayer, a fortune in healthcare spending that could otherwise have been avoided."
By Sam Bond