"Historic" marine protection deal signed

Ospar countries to cease discharges of radioactivity, hazardous substances, ban oil rig dumping

An agreement signed today in Sintra, Portugal, by ministers from 15 European states has been greeted as a "historic" move to reduce marine pollution in the north-east Atlantic Ocean.

Following all-night negotiations, parties to the 1992 Ospar convention agreed to aim for "close to zero" concentrations of man-made hazardous substances and artificial radioactive substances in the marine environment. For both categories, the countries will aim to cease "discharges, emissions and losses" to the marine environment by 2020. Under a third major agreement, marine disposal of virtually all parts of all offshore oil installations made of steel will be banned.

The agreements represent a victory for countries such as Denmark and Sweden, which have been pushing Europe's two main oil producers - the UK and Norway - and two main nuclear reprocessors - the UK and France - to sign up to tight new environmental controls. Environmental group Greenpeace has welcomed the decisions as a "vindication of decades of campaigning".

The ministerial deal on radioactive discharges was hailed by Greenpeace as the "beginning of the end for nuclear reprocessing". A spokesperson for British Nuclear Fuels, which operates the Sellafield reprocessing plant conceded today that operations would have to end if zero emissions were demanded and that new technologies would be required to achieve substantial further reductions in emissions.

However, both British Nuclear Fuels and Cogema, which operates La Hague reprocessing plant in France, stressed that ministers had agreed that achieving the objective of close to zero levels of radioactive pollution should take into account "technical feasibility" and "radiological impacts". Both companies say that the agreement sets demanding but achievable new challenges.

Ministers also agreed on a virtually total ban on the dumping of steel oil and gas installations in the sea. The only potential exceptions will be the footings - approximately the bottom 30 metres - of the largest platforms weighing over 10,000 tonnes.

The agreement follows a shift by the UK, which had been pushing for wider derogations. Only 41 "stumps" of platforms will now even be considered to be covered by the derogation. The UK oil and gas industry said it was "concerned" by the deal, which it said appeared to have been based on "political expediency". According to the UK Offshore Operators Association, it would cost about US$20bn (Ecu18bn) to remove all structures from the North Sea.

Other parts of the Sintra agreement were less controversial during the meeting but will also have far-reaching long-term implications for European industry and consumers. Not only countries bordering the north-east Atlantic will be affected. Landlocked Switzerland is already a member of Ospar, and discussions are to be launched with the Russian Federation and the Czech Republic, from where water pollution reaches the North Sea via the River Elbe.

The agreement to effectively end discharges of all synthetic hazardous substances by 2020 will step up pressure for substitution of dangerous chemicals. Under the deal, Ospar countries will draw up programmes and measures by 2002 to control chemicals on a priority list. Ministers also agreed that consumers should be given more information on hazardous substances in products.

Marine wildlife will also receive greater protection following adoption of a new annex to the Ospar convention which sets out a strategy for the protection and conservation of ecosystems. Parties to the Ospar convention agreed to develop by 2003 programmes and measures to achieve the aims of the strategy.

Finally, ministers agreed to "eliminate" eutrophication due to man-made inputs of nutrients to the marine environment and to "prevent future occurrences". The agreement will complement EU directives on nitrate pollution and urban waste water treatment. It will require application of a common procedure for identifying eutrophicated waters by 2000 and identification of the eutrophication status throughout the north-east Atlantic by 2003.

Follow Up:
Ospar convention, tel: +44 171 242 9927.

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