MEPs vote for tougher benzene air standards

Parliament plenary rejects derogations for towns with difficulty meeting air quality targets

MEPs voted yesterday to remove the possibility of exemptions from tough future EU standards on benzene in ambient air for urban areas with emission "hotspots". The unexpected move follows a narrow decision last month by the parliament's environment committee to allow restricted derogations from the proposed daughter directive on air quality, which will set ambient air limits for benzene and carbon monoxide (ENDS Daily 17 November).

If adopted by ministers meeting later this month the proposals will force all member states to achieve concentrations at or below 5 micrograms per cubic metre of benzene by 2010.

The European Commission has proposed that agglomerations experiencing "severe socio-economic difficulties" in meeting the target should be allowed to apply for five-year derogations from the limits. Benzene is largely emitted by road transport sources and is carcinogenic.

The full parliament's vote will reduce the likelihood of a "first-reading adoption" of the directive, now possible when member state governments and the parliament are already close to agreement under EU rules in place since May. Though member states agree on the future limits to be applied to benzene, they remain divided on how to draft the derogation clauses. Deletion of the provision would be strongly resisted as several southern member states feel it is necessary in large congested cities. The parliament also called for European Commission to produce an action plan to reduce benzene from indoor sources.

European environmentalists immediately welcomed the parliament's move to abolish benzene derogations. The coalition group European Environmental Bureau (EEB) said it gave a "strong signal that [the parliament] would not accept a two-track European environmental policy on reduction of benzene exposure". "The EEB welcomes this move showing that MEPs have understood that the challenge is to reduce benzene levels in highly polluted cities wherever in the EU," said the group's secretary general, John Hontelez.

Follow Up:
European Parliament, tel: +32 2 284 2111; EEB, tel: +32 2 289 1090.

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