UK: New EU Proposal for Priority Substances Daughter Directive (18 July 2006)

Last Updated: 17 August 2006
Article by Sarah Thomas and Paul Rice

On 18 July 2006, a directive setting quality standards for pollutants in surface waters was proposed by the European Commission.

Background: Water Framework Directive and control of chemical pollution

This proposal is the priority substances daughter directive under the over-arching Water Framework Directive. It not only sets limits for the original 33 chemical pollutants classified under the Water Framework Directive as ‘priority substances’, but goes further and includes limits for an additional eight substances. Collectively, the 41 substances include pesticides, biocides, heavy metals and flame retardants.

By way of background, the Water Framework Directive requires that all EU waters should achieve good status by 2015 and establishes a new regime for the prevention and control of chemical pollution of water.

The Proposals

These new proposals set ‘environmental quality standards’, by reference to maximum concentrations and annual average values and will help achieve the chemical aspects of the Water Framework Directive's goal of ‘good’ ecological status as they focus on 41 chemical substances that pose a particular risk to the aquatic environment and human health.

For certain substances which are particularly bioaccumulative - hexachlorobenzene, hexachlorobutadiene and methyl-mercury - the Commission proposes additional concentration limits in aquatic organisms. While standards will be included to control lead and nickel, pending the outcome of risk assessments, other substances are still under review.

If the proposals become law, Member States will have to meet the new limits by 2015. Thirteen of the most dangerous ‘priority hazardous substances’ will have strict limit values and all emissions of these substances would have to be phased out by 2025. The list of priority hazardous substances includes mercury and cadmium compounds, chlorinated paraffins, hexachlorobenzene, tributyl tin and penta-BDE.

The proposals will require Member States to prepare maps of ‘transitional areas of exceedance’ where concentrations of the pollutants are currently higher than the standards. Areas of exceedance will be required to be kept under review and progressivley brought into line.

For more information including the press release and proposed directive, see:

Next Steps

The proposal requires approval by the Council and European Parliament under the Co-decision Procedure before it becomes law. Once adopted, Member States will be required to include the measures needed to achieve the agreed standards in their River Basin Management Plans, which must be prepared under the Water Framework Directive by 2009.

As to the practicality of implementing these proposals, apparently the limits are based on EU assessments for specific chemicals and were in fact delayed - to ensure there is sound scientific basis for the limits proposed.

What does this proposed daughter directive mean for you and your business?

This proposed Directive represents the final major piece of legislation needed to support the Water Framework Directive. It implements the prevention and control of chemical pollution of surface waters - ground waters already having been addressed through the proposal of a Ground Water Directive (COM (2003) 550), currently being considered by the Council of Members and European Parliament.

This proposed Directive, if passed, will in the immediate term impact upon the work by the Environment Agency in its preparation of River Basin Management Plans and the programme of measures attached to these draft plans. However, its broader effects will be felt by any industry that causes chemical pollutants included within the list of 41 substances to be released or discharged into any surface waters. Pollutants get into the aquatic environment from a variety of sources including agriculture, industry and incineration. Thus these proposals will affect any industries discharging listed chemicals into waters. As well as agriculture, such industries may include water utilities and water contractors operating or commissioning wastewater facilities, municipal waste industries and those generating energy as well as waste recycling plants, pharmaceutical, mining, power and paper industries and any others operating process plants discharging chemicals into waters.


One cannot argue with the overall aim of this draft Directive. The fact that the new limits will streamline EU legislation by replacing existing environmental quality standards for certain substances set by five Directives adopted in the 1980s is also to be welcomed. The draft Directive falls short of proposing specific EU-level control measures for priority substances. Rather, it leaves scope for Member States themselves to identify the most appropriate and costeffective combination of measures to reduce pollution from the targeted substances. However, it remains to be seen whether the targets will, in fact, be approved and, if so, the cost and other impacts on industry within the UK – through River Basin Management Plans and revised discharge consents. We will, of course, update you with any developments in this regard.

Please note that this update is a summary only and no replacement for reading the proposals themselves.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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