Euro MPs move forward on soil protection directive

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Source: European Parliament

The European Parliament yesterday adopted its first-reading report on the first EU directive on soil protection. Among the key points adopted by MEPs is the setting up of public inventories of contaminated sites within the EU and the need for Member States to draw up remediation strategies. MEPs reinstate a list of potentially soil polluting activities. Member States will be allowed some flexibility as to how they put the directive into practice.

In their first reading report, drawn up by Cristina Gutierrez-Cortines (EPP-ED, ES), MEPs aim to promote the sustainable use of soil, to prevent soil degradation due to climate change - or to mitigate and remedy its consequences. The proposed directive should end the fragmentation of EU soil policy with existing provisions currently divided between various pieces of legislation on waste, pesticides and nature protection. A vote to reject the directive did not pass with 225 votes in favour 395 against and  11 abstentions.
 
Agriculture and new bio-waste directive
 
MEP says that each Member State, in accordance with its climate, soil characteristics and agriculture, as well as its best agricultural practices, may decide upon its own agricultural policy in relation to the soil.
 
No later than two years after the entry into force of this Directive, MEPs say the Commission must present a proposal for a biowaste directive setting quality standards for the use of biowaste as a soil improver.
 
National or regional inventories of contaminated sites
 
The directive includes a requirement to establish national inventories of contaminated sites, which will be made public. MEPs add that these could also be on a regional basis. They should be updated at least every seven years to include new contaminated sites and exclude those which have undergone remediation.
 
According to MEPs, within six years from the transposition date, Member States will have to identify the location of at least the sites where soil affecting activities, such as Seveso and mining installations or landfills of waste, are taking place or have taken place in the past. These activities are included in the text of the Directive.
 
Potential buyers will have to be informed of the present and past activities on the site and provide any information at their disposal on the concentration levels of the dangerous substances in the soil. Member States may require a chemical analysis determining these concentration levels.
 
Areas in airports, land-based areas in ports and areas in former military sites where use, handling and storage of dangerous substances occur or have occurred have been included in Annex II of the Directive. Industrial dry cleaners are also among these activities. This means that Member may refer to these activities when they perform their investigations of contaminated sites.
 
Member States will have to designate one or more authorities to be responsible for the identification of both these potentially contaminated sites and contaminated sites and for the management of the related inventory.
 
The Parliament inserted a definition of a 'contaminated site' as a site where there is a confirmed presence on or in the soil, caused by human activities, of dangerous substances posing a significant risk to human health or the environment.
 
Remediation
 
Seven years after transposing the directive into national legislation, the European Parliament wants to see remediation strategies drawn up and made public by Member States, 'at the administrative level they consider appropriate', including at least general remediation targets, set of priorities, a timetable for implementation of remediation measures for the contaminated sites and the funding mechanism.
 
Member States shall ensure that the contaminated sites in their territory are remediated, in accordance with priorities to be set, or already set, by the Member States themselves.
 
Cost-benefit analysis of remediation
 
The House says if the means required for remediation are not technically available, or represent a disproportionate cost with respect to expected environmental benefits, sites may be conditioned in such a way that they do not pose any significant risk to the environment or human health, including by restricting access to them or allowing natural recovery. If Member States choose either of these options, they must monitor the risk to human health and the environment.
 
Priority areas
 
Within five years of the transposition date, Member States will have to identify the 'priority areas' which need special protection against erosion, organic matter decline, soil biodiversity loss, compaction, salinisation, landslides, desertification or acidification. The list of these areas will be reviewed every ten years. MEPs propose that the choice of measures to combat these phenomena will be left to the Member States. Member States which have already national legislation in place will be exempted (Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, United Kingdom)
 
Soil sealing
 
Members States will also have to take measures to limit soil sealing and minimise its effects. ' As sealing is an irreversible process, Member States shall develop codes of good practice on sealing', says the report.
 
Agriculture and climate change
 
'This Directive is the first piece of Community law that recognises the positive role of agriculture on soil protection and tackles the issue of climate change', said the rapporteur. Amendments proposed by the committee reaffirm that Member States may decide upon their own agricultural policy in relation to the soil, while on climate change, MEPs in the committee want the Member States to improve their soil's capacity to capture carbon.
 
British and Irish speakers in the debate - Monday, 12 November 2007
 
Taking the point that Commissioner Dimas said that only nine Member States have legislation in place to protect soil, Neil PARISH (EPP-ED, UK) suggested that it is up to the other 18 Member States to put legislation in place to protect the soil and, he said, we should not necessarily bring forward another directive.
 
The Commissioner, he said, also stated that there are 300 types of soil throughout the European Union. It is, he said, very difficult to have one general directive to cover all these positions. You only have to consider agriculture in a year like this, where in some Member States there have been droughts and others have had very wet weather, very heavy rainfall. If you dig potatoes in many of the northern Member States this year, where there has been lots of rain, then of course you will cause compaction. It is necessary to do that in order to get the crop. That can be rectified the following year by subsoiling and repairing the damage to the soil.
 
Flexibility is needed, Mr Parish said, and he thought that the idea of having yet another directive in order to put more regulation upon our farmers and upon our industry is the wrong way to go.

While Kathy SINNOTT (IND/DEM, IE) said she could see some of the logic in EU-level legislation regulating water and air quality, she found that the logic fails with the protection of soils. Soils are much less mobile and, other than the setting of reasonable standards of protection, should be the competence of Member States and, within them, the local authorities. Before the EU takes too much control of soils maybe we need to do a bit of soul-searching.
 
In Ireland, she said, some of the problematic policies in terms of soil degradation have come top-down from Europe. For example, the EU sugar reform removed beet from the wheat rotation. The insertion of beet conditioned the soil and made it more suitable for cereals. Also, the EU forest grants over the years have resulted in unsuitable spruce plantations that, in growth, have made the soil more acidic and, in harvesting, have in some cases compacted the soil, rendering it infertile, whilst in others have loosened it from the hills, from which it has been washed into rivers and lakes.
 
Soil varies enormously but it should be living and renewing. The EU should ban soil destruction but leave its care and management to the people who understand its composition in each area, she concluded.

Jim ALLISTER (NI, UK)  said that soil, as has been said in this debate, unlike air and water, does not flow from state to state. It has no cross-border dimension. Thus policy on soil is and should remain a Member State issue.
 
IPPC, cross-compliance obligations, the Landfill Directive and the Nitrates Directive, he said, all give us more than enough EU involvement. Hence Mr Allister had no apology for favouring total rejection of this power-hungry proposal.
 
But, he concluded, if the EU nonetheless decides to meddle in this national issue, then one initiative it could consider is to introduce a payment to farmers in return for providing carbon sequestration in soil management and farming practices.

This proposal for a directive on soil protection has huge credibility gaps, said Jeffrey TITFORD (IND/DEM, UK). Firstly, he said, soil contents and qualities in different parts of an individual country vary considerably. He questioned how much more variance will there be between the soils of 27 different countries with vastly differing climates? It is absurd, he said, to suggest that the EU can introduce a one-size-fits-all directive on soil from the Mediterranean to Scandinavia.
 
Farmers, he said, have quite rightly pointed out that they have a vested interest in protecting the soil, because it is their livelihood. They also suggest that it would place another onerous burden upon them because of the failure to give enough recognition to existing national legislation.
 
The second large credibility gap is provided by the EU’s short-sighted open border policy, which has encouraged mass immigration from Eastern Europe to my country. This has generated the need for a correspondingly huge programme of house building on every square inch of land available – some three million new homes by 2020, we are told. Even the green belt is under threat. Burying vast acreages under solid concrete is not my idea of the best way to protect soil.

Mairead McGUINNESS (EPP-ED, IE) favoured the Prodi strategy with some reservations. All of us, she said, want our soils protected, but she thought that those who are concerned about this directive believe that it is not necessary to do it in this way. Mr van Nistelrooij pointed out a much better way of doing it, through open coordination. The difficulty that Ms McGuinness saw in terms of soil protection is that not enough research is done on how to protect soils and a great many researchers and advisers in the agricultural area are involved in form filling – forms that are created here in the European Union and which take them from their jobs of being involved with farmers in best practice in terms of soil protection.
 
While accepting the work done by the rapporteur, Ms McGuinness wondered why we need this at all. Irish farmers, she said, who are in large measure now worried about the Reform Treaty, will see this as another attempt to stifle them in their everyday activities, unless they are convinced that this is not the case.
 
Ms McGuinness reiterated her concern that the research and advisory work is, in fact, almost being destroyed by the levels of bureaucracy that the EU has created. 'Yes, we need to deal with soils that are contaminated, but we have directives that already do that; they are in place. I am not convinced, from today’s debate, that we need such a directive. I will remain open-minded until the end of this debate and see if I am thus convinced, but, so far, I am afraid not. Yes to the strategy, but no to the directive' she concluded.

Robert STURDY (EPP-ED, UK) congratulated Mrs Gutiérrez-Cortines who, he said, had done a fantastic job on a report which is not needed or wanted by most of us and, Commissioner Dimas, in my opinion brings this House and the Commission into total disrepute. You are, he said,  bringing out legislation which is totally and utterly unnecessary.
 
What is required, Mr Sturdy said, is enforcing the legislation that we have.  He called on the House to totally reject this piece of legislation.
 
Mr Sturdy agreed with other speakers who mentioned erosion. Erosion, he said, is a big problem but not necessarily in the European Union. It is a problem, he said,  where we have deforestation, and that is something that we could do something about. He agreed with Mr Allister that the Commission is failing to enforce regulations.
 
Concluding, Mr Sturdy said that as a farmer, 'the soil is my life. I will protect it to the very best of my ability. Do not put more legislation in place. Allow me to get on with protecting the soil, which provides the food, which provides the income for the people who live in the rural communities.'

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