Law regulating groundwater pollutants proposed for Europe

BRUSSELS, Belgium, September 22, 2003 (ENS): The proposal for a new law to limit groundwater pollution across Europe was adopted today by the European Commission. The measure introduces monitoring requirements and water quality objectives that would oblige member states to assess groundwater quality and to identify and reverse trends in groundwater pollution. But environmentalists said the proposal relaxes pesticide limits and does not cover hormone disrupting chemicals.

Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom said, "Water is a divine gift, but much abused. We depend on groundwater, and we must safeguard it. At the moment, we do not even have enough data about the quality of this vitally important resource in Europe. The proposed directive will help us find out more and make sure that our groundwater is not being polluted.”

For the first time the Commission has proposed legislation that establishes groundwater quality standards for pesticides. The measure specifies threshold levels to be set by member states for nitrates and pesticides in groundwater in line with parallel EU water laws - 50 milligrams per liter for nitrates and 0.1 micrograms per liter for pesticidal active ingredients.

But the proposal leaves member states to establish their own standards for other pollutants.

Europe’s largest federation of environmental citizens’ organizations, the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), says the proposed legislation falls short of tackling the "alarming state and trends of our groundwater quality."

The EEB opposes the proposed pesticides standard "as it relaxes the existing groundwater directive which prohibits entry to groundwater and thereby gives agricultural businesses a special right to pollute up to the standard, with no effective controls to prevent this from happening."

“A general 0.1 microgram per liter pesticides standard for groundwater is meaningless for human and ecological health.”, says Robert Cunningham from The Wildlife Trusts, UK. “The 1991 EU principal decision not to allow market approval for any pesticides showing up in groundwater will be undermined.”

Still, if signed into law, the directive will ensure that groundwater quality is monitored and evaluated across Europe in a harmonized way, the Commission said today. When 10 new countries officially are admitted to the European Union on May 1, 2004, laws such as this will apply across 25 countries, from Ireland to Poland.

In the proposal, compliance with good chemical status is based on a comparison of monitoring data with quality standards existing in EU legislation on nitrates, plant protection and biocidal products, which set maximum permissible concentrations, or threshold values, in groundwater for a number of pollutants.

By December 22, 2005 member states must set national threshold levels for ammonium, arsenic, cadmium, chloride, lead, mercury, sulphate, trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene, plus any other chemicals they deem are posing a threat to groundwater.

With regard to pollutants that are not covered by current EU legislation, the proposed measure requires member states to establish threshold values by June 2006.

Taking into account the great diversity of groundwater characteristics across the EU, these threshold values have to be defined at the national, river basin or groundwater body levels.

The proposal sets out specific criteria for the identification of significant and sustained upward trends in pollutant concentrations, and for the definition of starting points for when action must be taken to reverse these trends.

Significance is defined both on the basis of “time series” and “environmental significance,” the Commission said.

Time series are periods of time during which a trend is detected through regular monitoring, and “environmental significance” describes the point at which the concentration of a pollutant starts to threaten to worsen the quality of groundwater. That point is set at 75 percent of the quality standard or the threshold value defined by member states.

“The Commission has not taken its responsibility to provide appropriate EU actions for a very serious European health and environmental threat, but rather leaves it up to member states to deal with,” says Stefan Scheuer from the EEB.

“A system based on EU or national quality standards is not a good idea," Scheuer said. "We do not know enough about groundwater and compliance checking is extremely inaccurate. Instead of waiting until it is too late, and large parts of our groundwater are polluted, common action above the ground would be required.”

Groundwater acts as a reservoir from which good quality water can be drawn for drinking and for use in industry and agriculture. It maintains wetlands and river flows, acting as a buffer through dry periods.

Groundwater provides base flow to surface water systems, feeding surface water systems all through the year. So, groundwater quality has a direct impact on the quality of those surface waters as well as that of associated aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems.

There is much more groundwater than surface water - it accounts for more than 97 percent of freshwater resources available on Earth - excluding glaciers and ice caps. The remaining three percent consists of lakes, rivers and wetlands.

But groundwater is often difficult to access, which makes it hard to restore its purity once polluted. Even once a source of pollution has been removed, it can be difficult to clean up groundwater.

As groundwater moves slowly through the ground, the impact of human activities can last for a relatively long time, the Commission said, so it is necessary to focus on preventing pollution in the first place.

But the EEB expressed disappointment that "after two years of consultation with experts from member states, industry and nongovernmental organizations that the Commission has presented a text which "misses the opportunity to protect our remaining unpolluted groundwater" or set a harmonized EU approach to deal with hazardous or potentially hormone disrupting chemicals that can persist for decades in the groundwater.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2003. All Rights Reserved.

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