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Session 2003 - 04
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European Standing Committee A Debates

Protection of Groundwater Against Pollution

European Standing

Committee A

Wednesday 21 January 2004

[Mr. John McWilliam in the Chair]

Protection of Groundwater

Against Pollution

[Relevant Document: European Union Document No. 12985/03.]

2 pm

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Elliot Morley): It is nice to see you in the Chair, Mr. McWilliam. It is not the warmest Chair in the Palace of Westminster, but the debate will be lively and distract hon. Members' attention from the fact that the heating is not all that it should be.

I welcome the opportunity to debate the issue and the fact that the Committee asked for scrutiny of it. The measure is timely; we are about to embark on public consultation on the directive and we have produced the explanatory memorandum, and a partial regulatory impact assessment giving the background to it. For the Committee's information, the costs have been revised to reflect the annualised costs and the fact that the base year is 2004. That brings down the projected costs in the partial regulatory impact assessment.

The groundwater protection measure is rooted in the 1980 groundwater directive, which requires member states to prevent list 1 substances from entering groundwater and list 2 substances from polluting it. It applies comprehensive and effective controls over point sources and has been transposed mainly through the Water Resources Act 1991 and the Groundwater Regulations 1998.

We must look ahead to the water framework directive; the existing groundwater directive will be replaced in 2013 by the broader objectives of the water framework directive, plus more detailed measures to be adopted under article 17—the proposed new groundwater directive—so it fits in very nicely with the objectives of the WFD. Its objectives are to prevent or limit the input of pollutants; prevent the deterioration of the state of groundwater bodies; protect, enhance and restore groundwater bodies; and reverse significant and sustained upward pollution trends. It also seeks a balance between abstraction and recharge, even though that is not essential, is not subject to article 17 and is not addressed by the proposal.

However, it is vital for article 17 measures to be effective and proportionate. Groundwater is an immensely valuable resource; it is a vulnerable and complex medium that needs to be protected. The directive addresses the main areas and sets the criteria for assessing groundwater chemical status. It introduces a process for identifying and reversing pollution trends and establishes a list of substances that should be prevented from entering groundwater. Those are appropriate; they are required under

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article 17 and there are requirements for monitoring and reporting that also need to be integrated.

The proposal is not yet absolutely right; it is flawed in a number of areas and requires further work to develop and strengthen it. I shall give some examples. The measures relating to pollution control and to good status need to be clarified to ensure that the protection is at least equivalent to that under the existing groundwater directive as intended by the objectives of the WFD. We also want to ensure that we address drafting inconsistencies internally and with respect to the WFD; for example, its approach to nitrates. We need to be clear about that.

We must also ensure that we have a risk-based approach. We welcome the fact that this is a risk-based measure and therefore provides the basis for negotiation. It is certainly going in the right direction, but we are not there yet, so we want to do more work on it. In its favour, it provides clear, simple and transparent measures to be achieved; robust prevention of and control over groundwater pollution; targeted monitoring; and locally determined risk-based standards. Against it, however, are its disproportionately costly obligations to restore groundwater quality, unless doing so results in clear environmental and socio-economic benefits. We recognise that there may be an argument for restoring groundwater quality in some cases according to their particular characteristics.

In addition, there are some common non-risk-based European-wide standards that would not produce such targeted improvements. There is an argument for having a consistent approach, but there is also an argument for recognising that there are enormous differences between member states. There are even differences between different parts of a member states. We also have some flexibility in relation to a risk-based approach, for which we will argue.

The directive also provides benefits in reducing costs for the treatment of groundwater for drinking. It helps to protect private drinking water and provides cleaner groundwater for abstraction, which is important for industrial and agricultural uses. It also provides regulators with powers to meet environmental objectives for cleaner rivers and aquatic ecosystems fed by groundwater. There are cost implications for sewerage undertakers, agriculture, transport, industry and the waste sector. We must take those cost implications into account and ensure that they are proportionate and reasonable.

We want the flexibility to apply the directive effectively. We do not want to adopt a rigid one-size-fits-all approach, nor do we want any proposals to weaken the very beneficial measures in the directive. We believe that it is important that the standards to be applied are effective. There is an argument for flexibility in applying the directive and in dealing with individual situations, but there is a strong case for common standards, approaches and methodologies. It is important that each member state of the European Union applies exactly the same methodology when it determines the appropriate standards for achieving consistent protection measures, so that standards compare throughout the EU.

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In conclusion, we recognise that groundwater is a complex and variable issue and a vital resource for which there are many and varied uses. We need to ensure that it is protected. The Government recognise that the proposal has weaknesses. We believe that it needs to be clarified in order to achieve WFD objectives. Some of those objectives could also be clarified, but they will not be implemented until 2015, so we still have time.

We also want strongly to encourage what is, in essence, a risk-based approach. We believe that that is the right way forward and a very good basis for negotiations through which we can deal with our concerns and make the directive more effective. Other member states may seek a more rigid and uniform approach, but we must strike the right balance by producing a well drafted and effective measure that delivers what we want, rather than an over-prescriptive but possibly ineffective and costly groundwater standard. If we are to allocate resources, we want them to be used in the most effective way in order to gain the greatest benefits. The directive must be drafted and framed in a way that makes that possible.

I invite the Committee to support the Government's objectives in negotiating a flexible risk-based instrument that takes account of the variability of groundwater and its uses and provides effective groundwater protection. That is important for our country, the environment and the range of water uses. I am sure that all members of the Committee share that common objective.

The Chairman: We now have until 3 o'clock at the latest for questions, when I will call the Minister to move the motion. I ask Members to remember, although it may be a moot point, that there is no injury time and that a Division in the House is likely at about 4 o'clock.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): Welcome to the Chair, Mr. McWilliam. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon.

I believe that we prayed against the statutory instrument; we certainly prayed against the water framework directive, which I think will be dealt with on Monday. What is the relationship between the groundwater directive and two other directives from Brussels; the nitrates directive and the integrated pollution prevention and control directive? That matter obviously will have implications for farming.

Mr. Morley: The proposed directive is, in many ways, a daughter directive of the water framework directive, and fits in with article 17. It does not have implications in relation to the nitrates directive or, I think, to IPPC. If I am wrong, I will clarify that, but I am pretty sure that that is the case.

Mrs. Janet Dean (Burton) (Lab): My hon. Friend the Minister mentioned consultation. Will he have discussions not only with those who may be polluters but with users, such as the beer industry in my constituency, which obviously relies on good water to produce its good-quality ale?

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Mr. Morley: I appreciate that my hon. Friend is a robust defender of her constituency interests and the very fine products that those interests deliver. Like many other industries that rely on high-quality—[Interruption.] I apologise, Mr. McWilliam. I thought that my phone was switched off.

Miss McIntosh: On a point of order, Mr. McWilliam. As someone who is not a regular visitor, may I ask whether that is the way in which proceedings in this Committee normally take place?

The Chairman: Order. That is the first time I have heard a Minister give himself a musical accompaniment.

Mr. Morley: We in the Government are very keen to innovate, Mr. McWilliam.

Obviously companies want to ensure that their groundwater is protected and of high quality. We take steps to ensure that under existing measures, but a measure such as this—linking in with the water framework directive—is certainly desirable in meeting those commercial objectives in the same way as it meets environmental objectives.

Sue Doughty (Guildford) (LD): I apologise for not being in my seat at the beginning of the sitting, Mr. McWilliam. Like many others, I am a casualty of a very busy parliamentary day.

Article 3 of the proposed groundwater directive requires member states to prevent hazardous chemicals from entering the groundwater. However, it sets different standards for pesticides, which it allows to be present in groundwater up to a concentration of 0.1 micrograms per litre. Why do we treat pesticides differently?


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