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Governments pushing to ease protection for aquatic environment

Tulip fields next to surface waters in the Netherlands
Tulip fields next to surface waters in the Netherlands Copyright Peter Dejong/AP
Copyright Peter Dejong/AP
By Robert Hodgson
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Environmental campaigners have raised the alarm about a potential weakening of EU water quality rules as a 2027 deadline to meet strict pollution limits looms.


With most EU countries set to miss a legal deadline to restore their rivers and lakes to health by 2027, green groups fear some are seizing on a pollutant watch-list update as an opportunity to weaken the bloc’s central water quality regulations.

The European Commission proposed in October 2022 an update to the list of pollutants that member states are required keep within strict limits in all surface and ground waters, to reflect growing concerns over harmful chemicals such as PFAS, the ubiquitous herbicide glyphosate, and pharmaceuticals.

But current EU Council presidency holder Belgium, in a document dated 27 May and seen by Euronews, had agreed with an earlier suggestion from Spain to push the compliance deadline forward to 2039 for the new substances, and proposes relaxing rules in other areas such as the requirement to prevent the ‘deterioration of the status of a body of water’.

Levels of all listed substances must be kept within specific limits for a body of water to qualify for ‘good’ ecological status – the minimum that governments are required to achieve across their territories by 2027 under the Water Framework Directive. But the signs are that the EU is nowhere near on target to meet this objective, set in 2000.

The compromise proposal, which national diplomats are expected to discuss at a meeting on 12 June, appears to be influenced by a joint statement circulated amongst delegations earlier this year by the Netherlands, with support from Denmark, Finland, Germany and Luxembourg.

The countries stress their agreement with “the overall ambition of the WFD” but argue that the rule on non-deterioration is not clearly defined in the legislation, and consequently its application has to follow court rulings which have found even temporary adverse impacts on water quality to be illegal.

In a case brought by green group France Nature Environnement against national government water management plans, the EU Court of Justice ruled in 2022 that compliance with the Directive must “take into account temporary, short-term impacts which are without lasting consequences, unless it is clear that such impacts have, by their nature, little effect on the status of the bodies of water concerned”.

Belgium appears to have taken on board the concerns of the five countries, proposing that a change in ecological quality status (EQS) from ‘high’ to ‘good’ should not count as deterioration, while noting that a strict application of the court’s definition could increase red tape and even “hamper” restoration work where “pollutants are relocated within or between waterbodies without however causing an overall increase in pollution”.

Green groups were alarmed by the apparent direction of travel in the EU Council. “By weakening EU rules that protect our waters, Member States are giving themselves more freedom to pollute and degrade water quality; which will harm our drinking and bathing waters as well as nature,” said Claire Baffert of the WWF’s EU policy office in Brussels.

The Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment reported last year that high levels of PFAS – dubbed ‘forever chemicals’ because they do not break down in the environment and accumulate in living tissue – had been detected in sea foam along the coast. Similar findings were also made in Belgium. EU regulators are currently considering a proposal to ban the substances across the bloc.

Sara Johansson, a water policy specialist at the European Environmental Bureau, said such contamination was exacerbating shortages of clean water and driving biodiversity loss. “This pollution, exposing people to harmful chemicals, is so severe that even kids playing on the beach or people eating fish is becoming a real health hazard,” she said.

“This crisis must be addressed with urgency, but instead Member States want to buy themselves more time by pushing needed action into the next decades, costing us, our health and environment dearly,” Johansson said, telling Euronews the legal changes by Belgium go beyond the remit of the Commission’s original proposal. A review of the Water Framework Directive completed in 2019 found the law fit for purpose, with the main problem being poor implementation.

The European Environment Agency, an EU body, warned in 2018 that little more than a third of EU surface and ground waters met the minimum requirements for ‘good’ ecological and chemical status. A follow-up report was expected this month, but the EU agency told Euronews the publication date was uncertain in part because the European Commission has yet to complete a review of new ‘river basin management plans’ that governments are required to submit under the directive.

The European Parliament, which adopted its position on the revision of the directive last September, wants to bolster citizens rights to challenge government decisions, including those that could lead to a deterioration of water quality. Final negotiations over the new watch list can only begin after the EU Council finalises its position.

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