MEPs turn the screw on benzene derogations

Parliament's environment committee threatens to force already agreed directive to conciliation

The European Parliament's environment committee today warned EU member states not to expect easy derogations from a future directive fixing maximum levels of benzene in ambient air. The vote increases the chances of a time-consuming conciliation procedure delaying adoption of a law whose substantive provisions have already been agreed between governments and the parliament.

Member states have agreed that under the directive they will ensure that concentrations in air of benzene - which is a carcinogen - will not exceed 5 micrograms per cubic metre by 2010. Member states will be granted a maximum derogation of five extra years to meet the target for urban areas where benzene abatement measures would create severe economic problems.

The European Commission had previously proposed unlimited extra time to meet the limits and the five-year cap was introduced only after strong pressure from the parliament. However, rapporteur Hiltrud Breyer said the parliament should also remove from the directive a reference to possible future amendments of the law which might extend the derogations. Ms Breyer said the reference was a "hidden message" that member states "don't have to worry about implementation" of the law, even though the change would have to be passed by other governments and the parliament itself.

Responding to Ms Breyer's plea, a Commission official said the clause had no legal effect as the Commission was free to propose amendments anyway. However, she said it has been "essential" to gain unanimous agreement on the directive by overcoming the "nervousness" of southern member states where hot climates exacerbate the benzene problem. There was a "danger of conciliation if it was deleted," she said.

Despite the warning, MEPs voted narrowly in favour of Ms Breyer's amendments. The parliament's plenary session will now vote on whether to approve the change.

Follow Up:
European Parliament environment committee, tel: +32 2 284 2111.

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