Select Committee on European Scrutiny Nineteenth Report




COM(01) 624

Draft Directive amending Council Directive 96/82/EC on the control of major accident hazards involving dangerous substances.

Legal base:Article 175(1) EC; co-decision; qualified majority voting
Document originated:10 December 2001
Forwarded to the Council:11 December 2001
Deposited in Parliament:16 January 2002
Department:Transport, Local Government and the Regions
Basis of consideration:EM of 24 January 2002
Previous Committee Report:None; but see (15219) 5543/94: HC 48-xv (1993-94), paragraph 7 (20 April 1994) and HC 70-xxi (1994-95), paragraph 8 (28 June 1995)
To be discussed in Council:No date set
Committee's assessment:Politically important
Committee's decision:Not cleared; further information requested


  10.1  Although Community legislation to prevent, and respond to, major industrial accidents was first introduced in 1982, the current requirements are set out in Council Directive 96/82/EC[41] (the so-called "Seveso Directive"). This includes an Annex, which identifies both named substances[42] (in Part 1) and broad categories of dangerous substances[43] (in Part 2) regarded as potentially hazardous, and it lays down certain requirements according to the quantities present at a particular establishment. Where those quantities exceed a basic threshold, the obligations on an operator involve notification to the Member State's competent authority of the quantities and physical form of any dangerous substances present on a site, the activity carried out at the establishment, and its immediate environment; the drawing up, and implementation, of an accident prevention policy; and the reporting of any major accidents (including any steps proposed to avoid a recurrence). In addition, the Member State itself must ensure that the need to prevent major accidents, and to limit their consequences, are taken into account in land use policies. In cases where the quantities of a dangerous substance exceed a higher threshold laid down in the Directive, the operator is subject to more comprehensive requirements regarding the provision of a major accident prevention policy and safety management system, emergency plans, and the provision of information on safety measures to those who could be affected by a major accident originating at the site.

  10.2  Despite its apparently wide coverage, the Directive is concerned principally with chemical plants and storage facilities where dangerous substances are present. As a consequence, it does not, for varying reasons, apply to military establishments; hazards created by ionizing radiation; the transport of dangerous substances by road, rail, internal waterways, sea or air; the transport of dangerous substances in pipelines; the activities of the extractive industries exploiting minerals in mines and quarries or by means of boreholes; and waste land-fill sites.

  10.3  Following a number of more recent incidents (see paragraphs 10.4 and 10.5 below) the Commission has been reviewing the safeguards in the Directive, and, as a result, it has proposed in this document a number of amendments.

The current proposal

  10.4  In addressing the need for action, the Commission draws attention to two different types of accident. The first involved separate dambursts in Romania and Spain, leading respectively to the discharge of waters containing cyanide and acids, from artificial tailing ponds[44] created as an offshoot of mineral extraction. Such ponds are not subject to the present Directive by virtue of the exclusions for mineral extraction and waste landfill sites, and the Commission believes that it would be sensible to rectify this omission by removing such activities from those exclusions (though it points out that the Directive would still apply only if the storage of dangerous substances was involved, and would not therefore provide any protection against dambursts where this condition was not met).

  10.5  The second type of incident arose in Enschede in the Netherlands, where a series of explosions at a firework company in the city caused 22 deaths and injury to almost 1000 people. Although explosives are among the general hazards covered by the Directive, its application to any particular explosive is governed by certain specified risk factors. However, the Commission says that, as those used relate essentially to the ease of ignition of different explosives, they may fail to reflect the relative risk potential, and also that the relationship between the gross weight of fireworks and the quantity of explosive material in them is unclear. As a result, the company in Enschede, though holding an operating licence for fireworks, could be regarded as not coming under the existing legislation. The Commission is therefore proposing that the definitions in the Directive should be amended to reflect the explosion hazard, in categories which would range from mass explosions affecting an entire load virtually instantaneously to insensitive material, where the risk is limited to a single article.

  10.6  In addition to these amendments which arise from particular incidents, the Commission recalls that, when Directive 96/82/EC was adopted, questions had been raised over the basis for the list of named carcinogens in Part 1 of the Annex and the threshold quantities assigned to them, and over the threshold quantities for the more general categories in Part 2 covering substances dangerous to the environment. As a result of studies carried out since then, it is proposing to add a number of carcinogens to the list in Part 1, but to increase the thresholds at which the Directive would apply, so as to bring these better into line with other designated substances, having regard to the relative risks involved. Thus, the present upper and lower thresholds of 1 kilogram would be raised to 2 tonnes and 0.5 tonnes respectively, and, where a carcinogen was in solution, the thresholds would apply only where the concentration exceeded 5%. On the other hand, for substances dangerous to the environment (as defined in Part 2), where the Commission says that relatively small quantities have often caused severe environmental damage, it is proposing to reduce the thresholds. In particular, for those classed as "very toxic to aquatic organisms" the upper and lower thresholds of 500 and 200 tonnes would be reduced to 200 and 100 tonnes respectively, whilst for those regarded merely as "toxic to aquatic organisms" or as capable of causing long term adverse effects, the present thresholds of 2000and 500 tonnes would be reduced to 500 and 200 tonnes.

  10.7  Finally, the Commission has proposed changes in the application of the Directive to petrol and other petroleum spirit, for which the present upper and lower thresholds are 50,000 and 5,000 tonnes respectively. It says that, although these are more frequently involved in environmental accidents than other substances, they cause less damage for a given quantity. As a result, it is proposing two changes:

  • the definition in the Annex to the Directive would be made more precise, and would in future refer specifically to gasolines, naphthas, kerosenes and gas oil, thus bringing it into line with those used in the UNECE Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents;

  • the existing upper and lower thresholds would be reduced to 25,000 tonnes and 2,500 tonnes respectively.

The Government's view

  10.8  In his Explanatory Memorandum of 24 January 2002, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department of the Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Dr Alan Whitehead) says that the UK welcomes the strengthened protection standards for human health and the environment which the proposed amendments would provide. He says that the change to the mining exclusion would have no estimated impact in the UK, but that the changes to the classification system for explosives would affect 30 sites. Of the other changes, those for carcinogens would affect about 65 sites, whereas those for substances dangerous to the environment and for petrol would each affect just over 50 sites. That said, the Government would like to refine the proposal by raising the proposed qualifying quantities (of 2 and 0.5 tonnes) for carcinogens towards those (of 20 and 5 tonnes) applying to the "very toxic" category of dangerous substances, which he says would better reflect their potential for harm. It also wants to clarify the system used for explosives.

  10.9  The Minister has attached to his Explanatory Memorandum a preliminary Regulatory Impact Assessment. This gives a fairly precise estimate of the costs (about £8.7 million over ten years) arising, particularly from the reduction in the thresholds at which the Directive would apply. However, it is a good deal less clear as to the benefits, largely because catastrophic accidents, although relatively few in number, can have unpredictable, but potentially very serious, consequences. Nevertheless, on the basis of previous experience, and of certain assumptions as to how other safety improvements made in the meantime might affect the comparison between future incidents and those in the past, the Assessment suggests that the risk from the sites affected by the proposal would be between £1.5 and £15 million a year (equivalent to £11.7 million to £117 million over ten years). In other words, even on the least favourable assumption, the benefits ought to outweigh the costs.


  10.10  As the Minister has provided a preliminary Regulatory Impact Assessment, and as he has indicated that a consultation exercise has been launched following publication of the Commission's proposal, we infer that he will be providing a revised Assessment in due course. However, we would be grateful for confirmation that this is the case, and, in any event, we would like to know if the consultation throws up any significant issues.

  10.11  In the meantime, we are not clearing the document, and would welcome further comments from the Minister on two aspects of it. First, he says that the UK would like to see a ten-fold increase in the thresholds proposed for carcinogens, on the basis that this would better reflect their potential for harm relative to the very toxic category of dangerous substances. However, as we have noted in paragraph 10.7, the proposal itself would already represent a very significant increase in the thresholds for carcinogens in Directive 96/82/EC. Consequently, adoption of the UK suggestion would imply an increase in the thresholds from 1 kilogram at present to no less than 20 tonnes and 5 tonnes (i.e. by factors of 20,000 and 5,000 respectively). We would be grateful for a fuller explanation of the justification for these enormous increases, and for an indication of how a change of this sort would affect the relative costs and benefits of the proposal.

  10.12  Secondly, we note that, although the Commission envisages a reduction in the thresholds applying to petroleum products in the current Directive, those it has proposed (25,000 and 2,500 tonnes) differ from those suggested by the Technical Working Group (5,000 and 2,000 tonnes respectively). In the latter case in particular, the difference is substantial, and appears to have arisen as a result of concerns expressed about the burden which the Working Group's recommendations would have placed on industry and enforcement authorities. Since the Minister's Explanatory Memorandum is silent on this point, we assume that he accepts the Commission's line of thinking, but again it would be helpful if he could confirm this.

41   OJ No. L.10, 14.1.97, p.13. Back

42   These include elements (such as bromine and chlorine), compounds (such as ammonium nitrate, phosgene, and those derived from arsenic and nickel), petrol, carcinogens, and dioxins and furans. Back

43   These are described in terms of such qualities as toxicity, explosivity, flammability, and substances which are toxic to the aquatic environment. Back

44   Tailings are the waste resulting from the extraction of valuable minerals from ore, and are commonly disposed of in contained ponds. Back

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