European Scrutiny Committee Contents

5 Water policy: priority substances




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COM(11) 875




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COM(11) 876

Commission Report on the outcome of the review of Annex X to Directive 2000/60/EC on priority substances in the field of water policy

Draft Directive amending Directive 2000/60/EC as regards priority substances in the field of water policy

Legal base(a)—

(b)Article 192(1) TFEU; co-decision; QMV

DepartmentEnvironment, Food and Rural Affairs
Basis of considerationMinister's letters of 17 April and 12 December 2012
Previous Committee ReportHC 428-li (2012-13), chapter 5 (22 February 2012)
Discussion in CouncilSee para 5.9 below
Committee's assessmentPolitically important
Committee's decisionNot cleared; further information awaited


5.1 Directive 2000/60/EC (the Water Framework Directive) aims to promote sustainable water use, to prevent the deterioration of water status, and to achieve "good status" for water bodies by 2015. In particular, Annex X of the Directive lists 33 so-called priority substances identified as presenting a significant risk to the aquatic environment within the EU (including some listed as priority hazardous substances because they have "ubiquitous, persistent, bio-accumulative and toxic" properties). In addition, Directive 2008/105/EC enables Environmental Quality Standards[18] (EQS) to be set for the priority substances in Annex X (and for eight other pollutants) so as to reduce their emissions.

The current documents

5.2 Directive 2000/60/EC requires the Commission to review the list of priority substances at least every four years, and it put forward in January 2012 these two documents, comprising (a) a report noting that, despite the measures taken so far, priority substances are still found at concentrations above the environmental quality standards, and (b) a draft Directive proposing a number of detailed changes to both Directive 2000/60/EC and Directive 2008/105/EC. In particular, the latter would:

  • introduce nine new priority substances, and six new priority hazardous substances;
  • reclassify two priority substances as priority hazardous substances;
  • update the water EQS for seven existing priority substances, and the existing biota EQS for three such substances; and
  • set new biota EQS for a further three substances.

5.3 Because the failure of a single EQS can lead to a water body failing to achieve good chemical status under Directive 2000/60/EC, the proposal would establish a "watch list" of up to 25 substances (or groups of substances) which Member States would have to monitor. Also, because some of the most harmful substances with ubiquitous, persistent, bio-accumulative and toxic properties are still found in sediments and biota at concentrations above the environmental quality standards, the proposal would allow Member States to present information on their chemical status separately; to monitor them less frequently; and to set environmental quality standards, not just in water (where their concentration may be very low, and difficult to measure), but in sediment or biota.

5.4 As we noted in our Report of 22 February 2012, the Government has welcomed the review of the list of priority substances, but has observed that, as the proposal would apply to coastal waters, which are also covered by the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, it will be necessary to ensure a coordinated approach to implementation. It also identified a number of specific points, notably:

  • that, because of the limited data currently available, the case for classifying two pharmaceuticals[19] as new priority substances is not strong;
  • that, although more data are available for another product[20] which would be similarly classified, there are only limited ways of controlling its emissions, making it likely that advanced waste water treatment (which has high energy demand) would be required;
  • that the revised standard proposed for a product[21] used for the treatment of sea lice by the aquaculture industry in Scotland could have significant economic implications;
  • that the separate presentation of information about substances with bio-accumulative and toxic properties would be helpful; and
  • that, although the introduction of a watch list would be helpful in developing the evidence base, there are some concerns about the possible resource requirements and the provision of adequate analytical capability.

5.5 The Government said that an Impact Assessment was being prepared, and would be submitted shortly, though it cautioned that the costs are highly dependent on the inclusion of particular substances, and could change significantly during discussions. In the meantime, it said that the Environment Agency had estimated that installing the necessary advanced waste water treatment plant in England and Wales to deal with some of the pharmaceuticals being classified as new priority substances could cost about £27 billion over 20 years. It therefore suggested that consideration should be given to regulating these through the extensive body of EU legislation on pharmaceuticals.

5.6 We commented that, although it was clearly sensible to review the contents of Annex X of Directive 2000/60/EC, it was evident that aspects of this proposal gave rise to concern, including in particular the very high water treatment costs which could arise if certain pharmaceuticals were to be classified as priority substances. We were, therefore, glad to see that an Impact Assessment was under preparation, and we expressed the hope that this would shed more light on the implications of such a step and on the possibility of regulating emissions from pharmaceuticals through the other EU legislation relating to them. We said that we proposed to hold these documents under scrutiny pending receipt of this information, but, in the meantime, we thought it right to draw them to the attention of the House.

Minister's letters of 17 April and 12 December 2012

5.7 We next received a letter of 17 April 2012 from the Minister for Natural Environment and Fisheries at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Richard Benyon), enclosing a draft initial Impact Assessment, but, as this simply provided an evidence base for the £27 billion figure quoted in our Report of 22 February, we did not think it necessary to draw it to the attention of the House.

5.8 We have now received a further letter of 12 December 2012 from the Minister, providing a more general progress report. He says that, since the start of the Council discussions, there had been a significant shift in views. Initially, the UK had been isolated in its opposition to the inclusion of E2, EE2 and diclofenac in the priority substances list, but that, as a result of the lead it had taken in highlighting the insubstantial evidence of benefits and extremely high costs, the majority of Member States now also oppose the inclusion of these substances.

5.9 The Minister adds that a draft report for the European Parliament during the summer had suggested that E2, EE2 and diclofenac should be retained on the list of priority substances but without EQS, and that a number of MEPs had suggested deletion of the substances from the list altogether. However, on 28 November, the Parliament's ENVI Committee had supported the approach in the draft report, leaving the EQS to be set at the next review of the Directive in 2016 (when the necessary measures would need to be incorporated in the third cycle of river basin management planning under the Water Framework Directive, from 2021-27). He expects the proposal to go to negotiation in the New Year under the Irish Presidency, with the aim of completing a first reading agreement by the summer, adding that such a timetable is required for the revised Directive to be incorporated into the second cycle of river basin management planning under the Water Framework Directive, which commences in 2015.

5.10 The Minister also recalls the draft Impact Assessment which he submitted in April, and says that he recognises that we will be interested in receiving the final version, which he says will be forwarded once the outcome of negotiations becomes clear. In the meantime, he comments that the most significant potential impact of the proposal would be the inclusion of the pharmaceuticals, as costs for several of the proposed priority substances have already been taken into account under other source control legislation. However, if the proposal were to be agreed with E2, EE2 and diclofenac set as priority substances but without EQS, the costs associated with these substances would mainly be those for monitoring (although significant costs could remain as a result of a proposed lowering of the EQS for a group of brominated diphenylethers). He says that these costs are still being assessed as the latter are already priority hazardous substances, for which source controls apply, and the Commission has recognised the difficulty of reaching the proposed EQS in identifying them as "ubiquitous persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic" pollutants, for which there would be reduced monitoring requirements.


5.11 We are grateful to the Minister for this update, and we are glad to see that the prevailing sentiment within the Council and the European Parliament now appears to be against the full inclusion of those substances which would have given rise to the greatest costs. Nevertheless, as the Minister has recognised, we would like to receive a final version of the Impact Assessment, and to be kept in touch with the progress of the negotiations. In the meantime, we will continue to hold the documents under scrutiny.

18   These are commonly set for concentrations in water, but also apply to sediment and biota, notably fish. Back

19   EE2 (used in the birth control pill) and diclofenac (a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug). Back

20   E2 (a naturally occurring steroidal oestrogen produced by humans and animals, and also used for oral contraceptives and hormone replacement therapy). Back

21   Cypermethrin. Back

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Prepared 2 January 2013