EU overrules Belgian plans for TBT ban

Phase-out of organotin anti-foulants from 2003 judged illegal despite impending global ban

The European Commission has rejected draft proposals by Belgium for a national ban on all organotin anti-fouling paints for use on ships from 2003, it has emerged. The Commission's decision has been taken despite the fact that plans for a similar worldwide ban are being drafted by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO).

Belgium could not introduce the planned law because it had agreed to allow restricted use of organotins - of which tributyltin (TBT) is the best known - under an EU directive last year, the Commission said. The Belgian authorities had not provided evidence that new circumstances now warranted tougher measures, it continued. In addition, the Commission said that Belgium had agreed with an EU strategy to pursue an organotin phase-out through the IMO rather than unilaterally.

The case is the latest in a series of rulings on the "environmental guarantee" clause in the EU treaty's article 95. This says that member states can impose stricter laws than agreed under EU single market legislation if they provide new scientific evidence justifying it or demonstrate a problem specific to their country arising after the legislation is passed.

Most cases so far have concerned the sale and use of certain dangerous substances and the Commission has approved the majority of applications (ENDS Daily 27 October 1999). But the Commission said Belgium's justification for its planned ban was "rather limited" and not sufficient for it to go beyond the partial ban, which applies to anti-fouling paints used on boats under 25 metres in length and all boats on inland waters.

Belgium had argued that a new study of flatfish and samples of marine sediment around its busy ports showed that contamination with organotins - known toxic and bioaccumulative substances that interfere with hormone systems - was more serious than previously realised. It said people eating shellfish such as mussels - a Belgian speciality - could be exposed to dangerous levels of the chemicals.

The problems caused by organotins, and TBT in particular, are well known, and the IMO last year passed a resolution calling for a complete phase-out by 2003. The environment committee of the body is currently working on a text to turn this into a concrete legal proposal. The EU has pledged to review its own organotin laws before 2003.

Follow Up:
European Commission, tel: +32 2 299 1111, and justification; Belgian environment ministry, tel: +32 2 220 2011.

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