Austrians dispute old landfill "time-bombs"

Environment ministry defends contaminated site policy after attack by Chamber of Labour

The Austrian environment ministry has defended its policy on combating pollution risks from old waste landfills following accusations that not enough was being done to tackle the problem.

The Austrian Chamber of Labour, an official representative body for workers, last week accused the government of inefficiency and of "ignoring an environmental time-bomb". The body claimed that not enough money was being spent on the most polluting landfills, and urged better methods to make owners of old landfills legally liable for pollution.

The debate is taking place amidst continuing concern in Austria over the potential for old landfills to pollute groundwater and drinking water supplies. The Chamber of Labour highlighted the, the Fischer landfill, the largest in Austria, which it says is polluting water reserves in the Mitterndorfer area.

Austria has thousands of old landfill sites, some dating back a century, according to the environment ministry. The Chamber of Labour puts the total number of confirmed and possible old disposal sites at as much as 80,000. About 100 old sites are causing serious environmental problems, the ministry estimates.

Measures are being taken to deal with risks from leaking landfill sites. Legislation passed in 1989 set environmental standards for old sites, encouraged investigation of the extent of pollution and introduced a landfill tax designed to pay for these measures. The charges payable ranged from AS50 (Ecu3.60) to AS200 per tonne of waste. Problems with the law emerged over time, and in particular holding owners of old disposal sites legally liable for pollution.

The landfill tax was increased in 1996 to increase revenues available to tackle contamination from old landfills, tripling the top tax rate to AS600. Following release of the Chamber of Labour's study, the environment ministry has claimed that the measure has been a success, boosting by 54% the amount of money spent on tackling pollution from old landfill sites.

The ministry also projects further increases in spending. It estimates that expenditure will triple to around AS830m by 2000. Meanwhile, the ministry is pushing for new legal powers to enable owners of contaminated sites to be held financially responsible. Along with the agriculture ministry, it is preparing a draft law to be presented to the government by the end of the year.

Follow Up:
Austrian environment ministry, tel: +43 1 515 22; Austrian Chamber of Labour, tel: +43 1 501 65.

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