Council agrees EU drinking water proposal

Stricter lead, pesticide limits fixed, but trouble looms for acidification, landfill proposals

After two years of discussions, EU environment ministers agreed to stricter limits on pesticides and lead in drinking water at their quarterly meeting in Luxembourg yesterday. However, it became apparent that trouble lies ahead for proposals by the European Commission for laws on waste landfilling and acidification.

A round-up of the day's proceedings:

DRINKING WATER: Ministers reached a political agreement on a proposed directive on drinking water, not the stronger common position that was widely predicted before the meeting (ENDS Daily 14 October). Despite the efforts of the Luxembourg Presidency to iron out potential problems before the session, the agreement was still reached only with difficulty.

France and Italy held out until the final minute for longer derogations before having to comply with the new lead standards. Both countries insisted on a potential delay of 20 years to meet the draft directive's limit of 10 micrograms of lead per litre instead of the 15 years proposed by the Commission.

In a final compromise, ministers maintained the 15-year derogations but agreed to allow all countries an extra three years to comply with all the 48 water quality parameters contained in the proposal. This means that, in addition to the five years to be allowed before member states have comply with the bulk of the directive's provisions, any country can request an extra nine years - rather than six - to comply fully with the quality standards. Even so, Italy made it clear yesterday that it would still vote against any common position reached in the Council based on this compromise.

The Commission has "no problems" with the political agreement reached, but would have preferred shorter derogations, a Commission spokesman told reporters today.

WASTE LANDFILL: The Commission's recent proposed directive on the landfilling of waste (ENDS Daily 6 March) looks set for a bumpy ride through the Council following the reaction of environment ministers yesterday. "It is quite clear that many member states are going to have problems with the directive," admitted Commission spokesman Peter Jørgensen today.

An internal Council document obtained by ENDS Daily appears to support Mr Jørgensen's prediction. Prepared for yesterday's ministerial debate, the document shows that Spain, Portugal, Greece, Ireland and the UK are "not favourable" to the proposal, regarding it as too costly to implement and likely to result in more incineration of waste, not less as the Commission is intending.

A majority of EU countries also believe - in contradiction to the Commission's proposal - that it is not necessary to pre-treat all waste to be landfilled. At the end of ministers' first debate on the directive, national officials were asked to further consider several fundamental questions. One of these is whether the EU should set targets for reducing the amount of biodegradable waste going to landfill at all.

The Council hopes to reach an agreement on the directive once the European Parliament has given its opinion. Since this has been delayed until the new year, it is unlikely that ministers move much further forward before March.

ACIDIFICATION: The Commission's strategy on acidification (ENDS Daily 13 March) looks set for an equally testing time in the Council as the landfill proposal. At a Council working group meeting last month, national officials from most EU countries described the targets in the proposal as over-ambitious and too expensive (ENDS Daily 15 September).

During yesterday's debate, many member states raised these issues with the Commission and said they had serious problems with the approach taken in the strategy. One national official told ENDS Daily: "It is quite clear the Commission's proposal is not going to happen." The Commission "has recognised the need to do more work," he said, particularly on the proposal's methodology.

One of the questions national officials have been asked to look at is whether a combination of EU and national/regional measures could be a more cost-effective way of dealing with acidification than a purely EU-wide proposal.

WATER FRAMEWORK: The Luxembourg Presidency presented a progress report on the Commission's proposal for a water framework directive (ENDS Daily 19 June). Continuing "conceptual" problems - such as how to define the Commission's objective of reaching "good ecological quality" for water - made it highly unlikely that a common position would be reached in December, the Presidency said. However, Luxembourg underlined its "firm intention" to make progress on the directive before handing it over to the UK, which takes over the Presidency in January.

OTHER ISSUES: At the meeting, the Presidency presented a progress report on the proposed directive to control exhaust emissions from light goods vehicles (ENDS Daily 11 September). It expects to reach a common position in the Council when it meets in December.

Over lunch, ministers discussed the environmental implications of EU enlargement, the starting gun for which was fired by the Commission in the summer (ENDS Daily 16 July). The Commission presented its recently completed policy paper on environmental taxes and charges, and also gave a progress report on work on green accounting.

Amongst numerous points discussed under other business, Austria and Sweden raised concerns about the Commission's approach to genetically modified organisms; Spain explained why it had continuing problems with the habitats directive on nature protection; and Austria called for tight limits on carbon dioxide emissions from cars (ENDS Daily 16 October).

Follow Up:
Council of Ministers, tel: +32 2 285 6111.

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