Select Committee on European Scrutiny Thirty-Fourth Report


THIRTY-FOURTH REPORT


The European Scrutiny Committee has agreed to the following Report:—

1. MAJOR ACCIDENT HAZARDS INVOLVING DANGEROUS SUBSTANCES
(23070)

15275/01

COM(01) 624

Draft Directive amending Council Directive 96/82/EC on the control of major accident-hazards involving dangerous substances.

Legal base:Article 175(1) EC; co-decision; qualified majority voting
Department:Transport
Basis of consideration:Minister's letter of 23 May 2002
Previous Committee Report:HC 152-xix (2001-02), paragraph 10 (13 February 2002)
To be discussed in Council:No date set
Committee's assessment:Politically important
Committee's decision:For debate in European Standing Committee A

Background

  1.1  The current requirements under Community legislation to prevent, and respond to, major industrial accidents are set out in Council Directive 96/82/EC[1] (the so-called "Seveso Directive"). This identifies both named substances and broad categories of dangerous substances regarded as potentially hazardous, and lays down certain requirements according to whether the quantities present at a particular establishment exceed either a basic or higher threshold.

  1.2  Following a number of recent incidents, the Commission reviewed the safeguards in the Directive, and, as a result, it proposed in December 2000 a number of amendments. These are set out in paragraphs 10.4 -10.7 of our Report of 13 February 2002, but include in particular:

  • adding a number of carcinogens to the list of dangerous substances, and increasing the thresholds at which the Directive would apply (with the present upper and lower thresholds of 1 kilogram being raised to 2 tonnes and 0.5 tonnes respectively);

  • a reduction in the thresholds for the category of substances dangerous to the environment, with the present upper and lower thresholds of 500 and 200 tonnes for those classed as "very toxic to aquatic organisms" being reduced to 200 and 100 tonnes respectively, and the corresponding thresholds for those regarded merely as "toxic to aquatic organisms" or as capable of causing long term adverse effects, being reduced respectively from 2,000 and 500 tonnes to 500 and 200 tonnes;

  • the introduction of more specific definitions for petrol and other petroleum spirit, combined with a reduction in the present upper and lower thresholds of 50,000 and 5,000 tonnes to 25,000 and 2,500 tonnes respectively.

  1.3  In our earlier Report, we noted that the Government welcomed the strengthened protection standards for human health and the environment which the proposed amendments would provide, but that it would like to see the proposed qualifying quantities (of 2 and 0.5 tonnes) for carcinogens raised towards those (of 20 and 5 tonnes) applying to the "very toxic" category of dangerous substances, which the Minister says would better reflect their potential for harm.

  1.4  We also noted that a preliminary Regulatory Impact Assessment had indicated that the benefits of the proposal ought to outweigh the costs. However, we went on to say that we would welcome further comments from the Government on two aspects of it. First, the Government had said that the UK would like to see a ten-fold increase in the thresholds proposed for carcinogens, on the basis that this would better reflect their potential for harm relative to the very toxic category of dangerous substances. However, the proposal itself already represented a very significant increase in the thresholds for carcinogens in Directive 96/82/EC, and adoption of the UK suggestion would imply an increase in those thresholds from 1 kilogram at present to no less than 20 tonnes and 5 tonnes (i.e. by factors of 20,000 and 5,000 respectively). We therefore asked for a fuller explanation of the justification for these enormous increases, and for an indication of how a change of this sort would affect the relative costs and benefits of the proposal.

  1.5  Secondly, we noted that, although the Commission envisaged a reduction in the thresholds applying to petroleum products in the current Directive, those it had proposed (25,000 and 2,500 tonnes) differed from those suggested by a Technical Working Group (5,000 and 2,000 tonnes respectively). In the latter case in particular, the difference is substantial, and appeared to have arisen as a result of concerns expressed about the burden which the Working Group's recommendations would have placed on industry and enforcement authorities. Since the Government's Explanatory Memorandum was silent on this point, we assumed that it accepted the Commission's line of thinking, but again we said it would be helpful to have confirmation of this.

Minister's letter of 23 May 2002

  1.6  In his letter of 23 May 2002, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Transport (Dr Alan Whitehead) points out that, as regards carcinogens, the Seveso Directive deals with exposure following a major accident, and seeks to limit its harmful effects on human health and the environment: accordingly, this should be the appropriate factor in determining whether the Directive should be applied. He says that a technical working group was not able to produce a scientific justification for the new limits proposed, and that the Commission had acknowledged that, under the equivalence of harm criterion, the appropriate level for carcinogens would be the same as those for very toxic substances. However, it had justified the lower qualifying quantities for carcinogens on the socio-political grounds of public concern (which it considered were likely to be heightened in the wake of recent incidents) and the application of the precautionary principle. The UK view was that there was no justification for the significant difference proposed between carcinogens and very toxic chemicals, and that the higher thresholds proposed for the latter better reflect the potential for harm, and would mitigate the costs of the measures proposed without substantially reducing the benefits.

  1.7  The Minister also says that the UK does not consider that the precautionary principle as cited by the Commission should be applied to the setting of thresholds under this Directive, and that it should be regarded essentially as an administrative judgement over which regulatory regime is appropriate, with proportionality and consistency being important to command the respect of stakeholders. He points out that the effect of the Commission proposal as compared with the UK's preferred option would mean 50 more establishments in this country being affected by the upper limit and a further 15 by the lower, and that the extra cost to industry would be around £3.4 million. However, the Minister also notes that the UK concerns on carcinogens have not attracted support from other Member States, and so "may be difficult to defend".

  1.8  As regards the proposed thresholds for petroleum products, the Minister says that the UK has indicated "reserved support", in that it regards those for the lower tier as acceptable, but recognises that the upper tier levels are a significant increase on those recommended by the Technical Working Group. He adds that, based on advice from the Environment Agency, the 25,000 tonne upper limit is at the top of the range the UK could accept to be sure of adequate protection for the environment, and that it has indicated strong resistance against any further increase in that figure. He also says that so far only two Member States wish to have the qualifying quantities of 5,000 and 2,000 tonnes recommended by the Technical Working Group, and that nine Member States support the Commission's proposal.

Conclusion

  1.9  We are grateful to the Minister for this explanation of the position taken by the UK on the areas we highlighted in our earlier Report. However, whilst we recognise that the appropriate threshold levels are essentially a judgement for the Government to take, we continue to have some concern that the UK appears willing to countenance such a high upper threshold for petroleum products, and in particular that it has been seeking in the case of carcinogens less stringent safeguards than those favoured by the Commission (and indeed, it would seem, other Member States). We therefore think it would be right for the House to consider these points further, and we are accordingly recommending the document for debate in European Standing Committee.


1   OJ No. L.10, 14.1.97, p.13. Back


 
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