Politics & Laws

EU continues its Focus on Water

The EU compensates for shortcomings in the Water Framework Directive with directive proposals for quality targets and a Groundwater Directive proposal, while granting Nitrates Directive derogations

The Water Framework Directive 2000/60/ EC (WFD) marks a new approach to counter the chemical pollution of water. The underlying intention is to devise a new frame for the EU provisions relating to surface water protection against dangerous substances dating back to the 1970s and 1980s, so as to match them with modern requirements and develop them further.

Priority substances

The concept foresees as a first step to identify those harmful substances which at EU level are of particular importance for the pollution of surface waters; these are the so-called "priority substances". In a second step, Community-level quality targets and emission measures shall be defined for these substances. This pays tribute to the combined approach embedded in the WFD, according to which emissions shall be controlled by taking adequate technical measures, providing for yet more stringent emission limits if this becomes necessary with respect to the quality targets.

A preliminary list comprising thirty priority substances is already included in Appendix X of the WFD. It contains a number of known metals such as mercury and cadmium as well as toxic organic substances such as hexachlorobenzene, which on account of its strong persistence today is still found in our aquatic ecosystem even though no longer in use.

But also toxic substances whose dramatic impact on our waters has become known only in recent years are listed. These include the artificial softener diethyl hexyl phthalate (DEHP), nonylphenol (NP), a decomposition product of detergents, or triphenyl tin compounds (TPSn), which are commonly used as fungicides in boat surface coatings.

Also several pesticides such as atrazine and simazine are found in the list. Some of these priority substances (such as DEHP, NP and TPSn) are eco-toxic and can also negatively affect the hormonal balance of aquatic living organisms.

Around mid-year, the EU Commission came up with a proposal for Community measures against priority substances (COM {2006} 397 final). This proposal formulates quality targets based on results from eco-toxicological testing of fish, daphnia, algae, and others. Special importance was also attributed to the fact that priority substances can accumulate in the fatty tissue of aquatic organisms to much higher concentration levels than the pollutant concentration in the ambient water would suggest.

As they proceed through the food chain, pollutant concentrations may become so high that the health of living organisms at the end of the food chain – such as humans (example: seafood) – is endangered. This has resulted in partly rather stringent quality targets which pose extremely high demands on the methods of chemical analysis.

Article 16 of the WFD also requires that for certain priority hazardous substances a cessation or phase-out of emission ("zero emission") must be achieved over the next twenty years. The present Commission proposal identifies 13 priority substances as being particularly hazardous. The Commission holds the view that the objective set out in Article 16 regarding these substances as well as the existing Community emission instruments, such as those relating to chemicals, pesticides and industry, should be sufficient to accomplish the proposed quality targets.

The Commission proposal thus fails to contain any concrete emission measures. However, member states are obliged to set up a comprehensive emission inventory for all priority substances. The directive proposal is now under review by the EU Council and Parliament. In the event that a political consensus can be reached under the German EU Presidency in the first half of 2007, the directive is very likely to be released in 2008.

In Austria, a respective ordinance on quality targets regarding the chemical condition of surface waters ("Qualitätszielverordnung Chemie") establishes mandatory quality targets for priority substances and further relevant pollutants. Much of the concept suggested in the Commission proposal has therefore already been implemented through the latter. There are signs that for some substances more stringent quality targets at EU level could be introduced, in the event of which the national ordinance would have to be adjusted accordingly.
(Source: aqua press Int. 2/2006, Dr. Martin Wimmer)

Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Water
(Unit VII 2, Int. Water Policy)
Dr. Martin Wimmer

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