Pan-European accidents convention advances

First meeting of parties launches discussions on possible new civil liability protocol

European governments have backed a move toward continent-wide rules on civil liability for internationally significant industrial accidents at a meeting in Brussels last week. Proposed by Switzerland, the initiative is a response to January's Baia Mare cyanide spill in Romania, which graphically demonstrated how water pollution incidents could have transboundary impacts (ENDS Daily 10 February).

Last week's meeting was the first conference of parties to the 1992 convention on transboundary effects of industrial accidents, which entered into force on 19 April. Negotiated through the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UN/ECE), the convention aims to harmonise systems for preventing and controlling industrial accidents that could have international impacts, including rules on mutual assistance, rapid communication about accidents and technological exchange.

Convention secretary Sergiusz Ludwiczak admitted that eight years between the convention's agreement and entry into force was a long time, but claimed a new impetus for implementation following Baia Mare. In particular, he said, parties last week agreed to create a joint working group on preventing accidental water pollution incidents together with the UN/ECE convention on the protection and use of transboundary watercourses and international lakes.

Parties welcomed the proposal first made by Switzerland in February (ENDS Daily 16 February) for a civil liability protocol to be developed jointly under the two conventions. A joint meeting of parties in 2001 is to decide whether to launch official inter-governmental negotiations. The European Commission, which hosted the meeting, expressed its strong support.

The industrial accidents convention is being implemented in close cooperation with the EU, given a large degree of overlap with the bloc's existing "Seveso II" directive on industrial accidents involving hazardous substances. "We've managed to come very close on procedures so there will be no additional work for EU members," said Mr Ludwiczak.

Other developments at the meeting included agreement on an international accident early-warning system. Parties also promised collaboration to identify industrial installations handling hazardous substances. The European Commission agreed that its' major accident hazards bureau would analyse information submitted by parties on industrial accidents.

Follow Up:
UN/ECE, tel: +41 22 917 4444. See also press release, and background on the convention.

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