First Standing Committee on European Community Documents


Tuesday 26 July 1988



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The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. John Hunt

Allason Mr. Rupert (Torbay)

Ashton, Mr. Joe (Bassetlaw)

Beaumont-Dark, Mr. Anthony (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

Bright, Mr. Graham (Luton, South)

Buckley, Mr. George J. (Hemsworth)

Burt, Mr. Alistair (Bury, North)

Dalyell, Mr. Tam (Linlithgow)

Evans, Mr. David (Welwyn, Hatfield)

Gardiner, Mr. George (Reigate)

Gill, Mr. Christopher (Ludlow)

Grant, Sir Anthony (Cambridgeshire, South-West)

Moynihan, Mr. Colin (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Government)

Pendry, Mr. Tom (Stalybridge and Hyde)

Roberts, Mr. Allan (Bootle)

Ryder, Mr. Richard (Mid-Norfolk)

Taylor, Mr. Matthew (Truro)

Thorne, Mr. Neil (Ilford, South)

Williams, Mr. Alan W. (Carmarthen)

Helme, Miss P. A. Committee Clerk

3 First Standing Committee on European Community Documents Tuesday 26 July 1988

[MR. JOHN HUNT in the Chair]


10.30 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Colin Moynihan): I beg to move, That the Committee takes note of European Community Documents Nos. 4236/86, and the Supplementary Memorandum submitted by the Department of the Environment on 11th July 1986 and 4498/88 on water quality standards for chromium; and supports the Government's intention to seek to ensure that any such standards are based on clear scientific principles consistent with the proper protection of the aquatic environment. It may be helpful if, at the outset of this debate, I describe briefly the background to the proposal from the European Commission for a directive concerning discharges of chromium to the aquatic environment, and its implications as viewed by the Government. A framework directive was agreed as long ago as 1976 on the mechanisms by which the discharge of dangerous substances was to be controlled within the European Community to protect the aquatic environment. This directive specified that all discharges to water liable to contain dangerous substances had to be authorised, and emission standards set. It also divided those substances into two categories, known as list I and list II. For the most dangrous list I substances—those likely to present the greatest threat to the aquatic environment—the framework directive specified that stringent controls would be set at Community level. These would be introduced by a series of "daughter" directives on specific substances. Member states—or the competent authorities in those member states—would have to authorise discharges of these substances so as to conform either with the uniform emission standards set down—the so-called "limit value" approach—or so as to ensure that specified standards were not exceeded in the receiving water—the "environmental quality objective" approach. Since 1976, a series of directives has been agreed setting down Community-wide limit values and quality objectives for a range of list I substances. For the less dangerous list II substances, a quite different approach was envisaged in the 1976 directive. Discharges of those substances were still to be authorised, but member states were given discretion as to the setting of emission standards, subject only to some general guidelines. These specified that member states should establish programmes for reducing pollution by these substances, that these programmes should include the setting of quality objectives, and that emission 4 standards should be based on those quality objectives. The Commission was, however, given a power to make proposals for the co-ordination of members states' national programmes if it saw fit to do so. Since 1976, the attention of the Commission and of member states has rightly been focused primarily on the more dangerous list I substances. The obligations regarding list II substances were not, however, forgotten and, in addition to ensuring that all discharges were authorised, the United Kingdom began to develop a series of national quality objectives and standards with respect to an initial group of list II substances which member states had agreed should receive first attention in this respect. Among these was chromium. Chromium is a naturally occuring metal, which is commonly found in surface waters and sediments, its natural concentration depending on the geology of the region. It is also commonly discharged as part of the process effluent from a number of industrial sectors. Those include metal working and finishing, the steel industry, the leather industry, the chemical industry, paper-making, textile dyeing and the electronics industry. It is also sometimes used in cooling water systems and in timber treatment. Chromium is present in water in two forms—known as trivalent and hexavalent. The former is relatively harmless—in fact, it is a trace element vital to certain chemical processes within the body of animals; the latter form is potentially toxic, in particular because of its much greater solubility. In the United Kingdom, the Water Research Centre was commissioned to study the toxicity of chromium and to propose some national quality standards accordingly. The results were set out in a detailed technical report by the WRC in 1984, and national quality standards were set down in a Department of the Environment circular in 1985. A range of standards was set according to the use of water or the type of species to be protected, and according to the hardness of water, which was observed to be an important determinant of toxicity. Water authorities were accordingly instructed to set emission standards for discharges containing chromium. In December 1985 the European Commission issued a proposal designed to harmonise the national programmes of member states with regard to the reduction of pollution by chromium. It did so under the powers provided in the 1976 framework directive, and the ostensible reason was that it was dissatisfied with the implementation by most member states of their obligations in respect of list II substances. At the time only three member states—the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands—had notified the Commission that they had set water quality objectives for chromium. In each case these had been applied on a quite different basis, although the Commission acknowledged that the standards set were reasonably consistent. Chromium was chosen as the first subject for a Commission proposal on a list II substance, probably because it is among the more toxic of the list II metals, and because of its prevalence. It was always 5 clear, however, that the Commission envisaged further similar proposals on a number of other list II metals if agreement could be reached on this first substance. The Commission proposal set out a series of quality objectives for chromium which it considered should be applied to all waters throughout the Community. The United Kingdom Government made it clear at the outset that we did not readily accept the need for Community-level controls over this list II substance. Some member states had estblished effective quality objectives as envisaged under the 1976 directive. If others had not fulfilled their obligations in this regard, it would be more appropriate for the Commission to take action against them for inadequate implementation in the normal way. To set Community-level standards which would override those set at national level seemed to provide a disincentive for member states which had already fixed quality objectives for chromium in compliance with their obligations. The quality objectives put forward by the Commission were reasonably acceptable. They were derived and applied in ways similar to those used in the United Kingdom. Based on assessments of the maximum concentrations permissible to protect aquatic life, although there were some important differences. I shall not go into those differences, because just over two years later, the Commission has issued a revised proposal which significantly alters the basis and nature of the proposed Community controls. This was document 4498/88, issued in January this year, about which I submitted an explanatory memorandum on 9 March this year. It is difficult to speculate on the thinking that caused the Commission completely to revise its original proposal, but it is clear that pressures from certain member states, and in particular from the European Parliament, for a different type of approach contributed significantly. The most notable change to the Commission's original proposal was for a fixed emission standard or "limit value" of 2 mg per litre for all discharges of chromium. This would apply across the board, regardless of the size or nature of the plant, its location, the type of chromium discharged, the use and chromium content of the receiving water, the number of other sources affecting that water or any other factor. As I have already mentioned, the fixing of such limit values was precedented in directives on list I substances, but even there greater flexibility was incorporated across different industrial sectors, and the option of using a quality objective approach was left open to member states provided that they could demonstrate that those quality objectives were met. As is widely known, the United Kingdom generally favours the quality objective approach, not least because this takes account of inputs from all sources and enables discharge standards to be set so as to ensure a given level of environmental quality and protection in the receiving water. The introduction of Community limit values for a list II substance appeared to be fundamentally at odds with the approach envisaged for those substances in the 1976 6 directive, and would effectively represent a significant amendment to that directive. A number of important changes were also made to the way in which quality objectives were to be applied, and these are detailed in the explanatory memorandum that I have mentioned. In particular, quality objectives were no longer defined according to the nature of the water, its hardness or the type of species to be protected. Instead just two sets of objectives, for inland and marine waters, were proposed. Other changes, such as the measurement of particulate as well as dissolved chromium, and the use of 90 percentile figures rather than annual averages appeared to us irrational, as did the introduction of a standard for chromium in river sediments, since in this form the substance does not present a ready threat to aquatic life and quite high sediment concentrations occur naturally in many rivers. Because of those changes it is difficult to compare the quality objectives proposed with those in force in the United Kingdom or with those in the Commission's original proposal. In some circumstances they would be less stringent; in other circumstances they would be considerably more stringent. No explanation is given as to how the new proposals were derived, but it seems clear that neither they nor the single across-the-board limit value of 2 mg per litre are based on clear scientific principles. I have already said that the quality objectives in force in the United Kingdom are based on detailed ecotoxicological evidence of the standards needed to protect aquatic life from harm, with a suitable safety margin built in as a precaution. That is the only rational way to set quality objectives and to ensure proper protection of the environment, and there is no evidence that the commission's latest proposals have been derived in this way. We have made it clear that our own standards are subject to review in the light of any new scientific evidence available, but none has been produced. The use of clear scientific principles is essential where the effect of new environmental controls on industry's costs and prospects could in some cases be substantial. There are very few stretches of river where the levels of chromium are a cause for concern, and water authorities have already been asked to draw up programmes to deal with them. The vast majority of our rivers could easily comply with standards far more stringent than those proposed. What I am saying is that, particularly for the less dangerous list II substances, tighter controls which could in some cases have an impact on industry in the United Kingdom need to be soundly based and to be justified by the likelihood of commensurate environmental improvements. The Government do not believe that the Commission's latest proposal satisfies those criteria. Fortunately, the United Kingdom is not alone in its insistence on those points. A number of other member states continue to believe that the quality objective approach is the most appropriate way of dealing with list II substances; many of them are concerned to see whatever controls emerge put on a more rational, scientific basis; and indeed many other 7 member states wonder why the commission brought forward a proposal on a list II substances in the first place when there is so much work still to be done on the more dangerous list I substances. There have been detailed discussions in the Council of Ministers over the past two years, in which the United Kingdom has participated constructively. However, despite some progress, there remain a susbtantial number of different views on a range of unresolved issues, both of principle and of detail. In part, this reflects the difficulties that were always likely to arise in any attempt to harmonise at Community level control measures that had previously been seen as appropriate to the national level, and which are accordingly based on a range of different national circumstances—political, administrative and geographical. In recent months little progress has been made. The German presidency, which has just completed its term, reached the conclusion—in our view rightly—that there were more important matters to be settled at Community level. There is little sign that the current Greek presidency will take a different view. I am not able to say, therefore, what the future of this proposal is likely to be, other than to predict that if Community-level controls over chromium are ever to be adopted, they will look very different from those put forward in the Commission's revised proposal. It is the Government's intention that any such controls should be based on clear scientific principles consistent with the proper protection of the aquatic environment.

10.43 am

Mr. Allan Roberts (Bootle): I shall not detain the Committee for long, but I must take issue with the Minister on one or two points. We believe that once again the Government are being complacent in their response to this EEC modified directive. They are putting their own interests and ideals on how to control pollution of water before the interests of the environment. The explanatory memorandum makes it clear that this modified directive aims to do five things. It says: "The aim of this modification to the 'proposal for a Council Directive on water quality objectives for chromium' is to bring industrial discharges into the programming of pollution reduction" the Opposition see nothing wrong with that— "programmes for water pollution by chromium; to extend the chemical types of chromium involved to include total chromium; to define differently the degree of compliance of samples; to rationalise the quality objectives for freshwaters and to quantify the quality objective for sediments". Those are the proposals and we consider it reasonable for EEC countries to comply with them. The most important proposal in the directive—a significant change—is for the introduction of a limit of 2 mg per litre for all discharges of chromium. This would apply in addition to the quality objectives shown. The Government object fundamentally to that proposed limit because they say that it conflicts with the concept of controlling water pollution by quality objectives. We do not necessarily believe that incompatibility with the use of quality objectives is 8 a reason for objecting to more stringent controls on chromium polluting our waters. We are not so sure that the best way of controlling pollution in our waters in all areas is by quality objectives. We have discussed this matter before and we felt that the use of the lowest limits as are reasonably achievable is a concept that should apply to the process of cleaning up the environment and protecting our waters equally with the use of quality objectives. The Government's other argument against the modified directive is that stricter controls are being introduced for list II substances than those that apply for list I substances, which are more dangerous. We accept that, but we feel that the solution is to introduce stricter controls more quickly for list I substances. Another major Government concern which we do not dismiss lightly is the potential impact on United Kingdom business costs. We do not want British industry to be at a disadvantage with our competitors in Europe and elsewhere. But we believe that in the long term, putting industry's profit before the environment is misguided and short-sighted, and is unlikely to achieve lasting results. Introduction of those controls can be done by agreement throughout Europe, and in such a way that the impact on our competitiveness and United Kingdom business costs will not be greatly disadvantageous to industry. No one who is concerned first and foremost with the profit motive—as is the private sector—will spend money on protecting the environment unless a Government, either ours or a Government of an EEC country, or a local authority, intervenes to ensure that the environment is protected. We do not think that the directive would have a significant impact on United Kingdom business costs and we feel sure that British industry would be able to make adjustments and deal effectively with the implementation of the directive. According to the Government chromium in river sediments is not a ready threat to aquatic life. We believe that it may be. We wish to see the guidelines strengthened so that monitoring of chromium in such species as biota is carried out. Peple eat fish, not sediments. We should like there to be more research on the effect of chromium on the food chain. We should like the directive to be enforced for, say, 12 to 18 months. If the Government intend to implement EEC directives such as these, we want to know how they will set up the necessary mechanisms, and whether the Department of the Environment has plans to establish such mechanisms. The Government's responses to many of the EEC directives on the environment and on water pollution are, we feel, rather lax and tawdry because they do not give the environment priority. Whether this is due to pressure from the Department of Trade and Industry, in the same way as pressure is brought to bear by the motor industry on things such as catalytic convenors is not certain. We also fear that if action is not taken in respect of chromium in water and of other pollution of ground waters and rivers before privatisation of the water authorities, it will never be taken. 9 Dealing with the problem of chromium in water would probably be the joint responsibility of the water authorities and the new National Rivers Authority. If who has responsibility for what is not clearly designated, and action is not taken now, there may be inaction for a considerable time. We look to the Government to assure us that the National Rivers Authority will have the resources of money for research and action and of person power to ensure that this type of directive is implemented.

10.50 am

Mr. Moyniham: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that faster progress on list I substances is needed, and we are pressing the Commission hard for improvements in that respect. I also agree about the importance of research, and I think that the hon. Gentleman will commend the subsatantial documentation that emanated from the Water Research Centre in 1984, which studied the toxicity of chromium. It was highly relevant to the current negotiations, which will continue along the lines that I have described. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman believes that we are being complacent. We are one of only three countries that have taken action and notified the Commission of it. It is surprising that the Commission's proposal lacks logic when it has been brought forward under article 7.7 of the framework directive, which calls for regular comparisons to be made by member countries, but enough member states' programmes have to come forward to ensure sufficient co-ordination in their implementation. That has not happened, but we are one of the leaders in making it happen, and we shall encourage the 10 Commission to take appropriate action. Indeed, if the Commission wishes to require member states to take action on chromium pollution, which we believe it should, it will take enforcement action under the framework directive, rather than introduce a new draft directive to control a list II substance. There have been many debates in the past year on limit values and environmental quality objectives. Chromium is a good example of a substance where environmental quality objectives rightly apply, because it takes many forms, the toxicity of which differs according to the condition of the receiving waters and which form of chromium exists in the sediment, be it trivalent, which is relatively harmless, or hexavalent, which can be far more toxic. Therefore, any limit values would tend to be arbitrary, and it would be far more effective to consider environmental quality objectives in that context. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks, and I hope that I have managed to satisfy him on one or two of his points. We shall continue to negotiate along the lines that I have recommended to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Committee takes note of European Community Documents Nos. 4236/86, and the Supplementary Explanatory Memorandum submitted by the Department of the Environment on 11th July 1986 and 4498/88 on water quality standards for chromium; and supports the Government's intention to seek to ensure that any such standards are based on clear principles consistent with the proper protection of the aquatic environment.

Committee rose at seven minutes to Eleven o'clock.


Hunt, Mr. John (Chairman)

Allason, Mr.

Beaumont-Dark, Mr.

Bright, Mr.

Evans, Mr. David

Gardiner, Mr.

Gill, Mr.

Grant, Sir Anthony

Moynihan, Mr.

Roberts, Mr. Allan

Ryder, Mr.

Thorne, Mr. Neil

Williams, Mr. Alan W.