EU Commission acts over sewage sludge

Five EU states told to improve monitoring of residues for agricultural spreading

One-third of the EU's 15 member states do not properly monitor the use of heavy-metal-containing sewage sludge, the European Commission warned today. Announcing the start of legal proceedings against Belgium Sweden, Ireland, Italy and Portugal, it said some sludges contaminated with toxic metals above EU permissible limits could be being spread on agricultural land unknowingly.

The Commission is currently working to revise EU limits on pollutants in sewage sludges, a process that will probably lead to the first ever limits on dioxins and much tougher heavy metal thresholds (ENDS Daily 9 March). In the meantime, EU member states are bound by a 1986 directive. This sets limits for metals and some nutrients and requires regular compliance reports detailing sludge composition and disposal routes.

In a statement, the Commission said that monitoring deficiencies were revealed by the latest set of reports, covering the period 1995 to 1997. The five countries will receive letters of formal notice, or first warnings, that they should beef up their surveillance systems or face action in the European Court of Justice. "[Sludges] must be checked before starting land-spreading operations [to see] whether the concentrations of heavy metals do not exceed the limits," it said.

Sewage sludge contamination climbed the political agenda last year after a major row in France, where farmers refused to take what they believed were dioxin-tainted residues from municipal sewage plants. "It is vital to protect and enhance the quality of our food. We need to be sure that we have the right information and effective controls on the use of sewage sludge in agriculture," environment commissioner Margot Wallström said today.

Follow Up:
European Commission, tel: +32 2 299 1111, and a press release.

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