UK makes sweeping changes to marine policy

Policy shift a boost for Ospar Commission as inter-governmental talks begin in Brussels

The UK government announced sweeping changes to its marine pollution policy this morning as officials gathered in Brussels for the start of the annual meeting of the Oslo and Paris (Ospar) Commissions.

Interviewed on BBC radio, UK environment minister Michael Meacher said that Britain was dropping its long-standing opposition to tighter rules on the discharge of hazardous substances and radioactive waste into the north-east Atlantic. In a reversal of the previous government's position, the minister also announced there would now be a "presumption against" sea disposal of redundant oil and gas installations.

The policy shift, which Mr Meacher described as "the most important change in European marine policy for at least a couple of decades," opens the way towards a blanket ban on dumping at sea. Norway is now the only Ospar signatory to oppose such a move.

Environmental campaigners welcomed the UK's change of heart. Simon Reddy of Greenpeace welcomed the announcement as "a major step forward" that had "changed the mood" of the Ospar meeting. Greenpeace particularly welcomed the intention to dispose of oil and gas installations on land, rather than at sea.

Last year, the environmental group fought a high profile campaign to prevent Shell's Brent Spar storage buoy being dumped in the Atlantic. Greenpeace UK's director, Peter Melchett, said today that the government's announcement "totally vindicated" its campaign.

The government also announced an end to the British opt-out from a total permanent ban on sea dumping of intermediate and low level radioactive waste agreed in 1992. Mr Meacher said the ban would "dramatically" change the control of radioactive emissions from Britain's largest reprocessing plant at Sellafield and should lead to a "major reduction in radioactive waste to sea".

Only France now maintains an opt-out on the ban, but observers expect it to soften its stance following the change of government in June and the recent furore over radioactive discharges from reprocessing plant at La Hague (ENDS Daily 17 June). Mr Reddy told ENDS Daily that although the French are unlikely to discuss radioactive discharges in any detail during the Ospar meeting, "the fact that they are not here pushing their normal brief is quite positive".

In a third policy shift, Mr Meacher announced that the UK would join other Ospar signatories in calling for end to the discharge of hazardous substances into the marine environment "within a generation". At the last North Sea Ministers Conference, the UK was the only Ospar signatory to oppose this aim.

Follow Up:
UK environment ministry, tel: +44 171 890 3000; Ospar, tel: +44 171 242 9927; Greenpeace, tel: +31 20 523 6222.

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