MEPs approve contested soil strategy

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Ahead of a November plenary vote, MEPs in the Parliament’s Environment Committee voted on 9 October in favour of a Commission proposal that gives member states considerable room for manouevre on soil protection.

The Environment (ENVI) Committee’s vote on the report by Christian Democrat MEP Cristina Gutierrez-Cortines follows an earlier deliberation (EURACTIV 14/09/07) that revealed significant disagreements between MEPs.

Members from the EPP-ED group had even called, unsuccessfully, for an outright rejection of the proposal on the grounds that it lacked coherence and that more time was needed by member states to study different soil management and protection options. 

Despite the differences, MEPs voted to move the dossier forward. The main provisions of the vote include a requirement for member states to draw up public inventories of contaminated sites, to be updated every two years. Acidification, biodiversity loss and climate change effects are to be included among the criteria used to monitor soil degradation.

Member states will also need to draw up soil remediation strategies (with an allocation of appropriate funds) seven years after the transposition of the directive, and ‘risk reduction targets’ will need to be set for the most severely contaminated areas.

The Parliament is expected to finalise its first reading during a November plenary session, and the Portuguese EU Presidency is hoping to reach a political agreement during an Environment Council on 17 December.

Rapporteur and MEP Cristina Gutierrez-Cortines (EPP-ED) hailed the outcome as "the first time the European Union has defined a clear policy against erosion, compaction and salinisation, which are the main problems for Spanish soils". 

But German Green MEP Hiltrud Breyer strongly criticised the vote, saying that "differing requirements in member states on polluted sites would lead to a distortion of competition between companies in Europe". 

Breyer also said that "the text adopted today makes for grim reading for our soil", despite the committee's approval of requirements for identifying and assessing contaminated sites. The Greens are concerned that the original soil remediation proposals put forward by the Commission were weakened too much.

The European Environmental Bureau (EEB) "deplored the outcome of today's vote on soil [...] as a setback for EU environmental policy-making". The group is concerned that, if adopted as law, the directive "won't be the driver for more sustainable use of what is effectively a non-renewable resource", and that parallel measures such as the EU's Water Framework Directive and the Integrated Pollution Prevention & Control (IPPC) Directive are not strong enough to protect soils from pollution and degradation.

There is no comprehensive legislation on soil protection in the EU, and only nine member states have specific legislation in place. 

The Commission has sought to address the issue by making soil the focus of one of its 'thematic strategies' under the 6th Environment Action Programme, and in September 2006 it proposed a framework directive that defines common principles, objectives and actions but shies away from setting targets for the member states. 

Environmental groups say the proposal is weak and will lead to fragmented soil protection regimes across the EU.

  • Nov. 2007: first reading in EP plenary;
  • 17 Dec. 2007: Portuguese EU Presidency pushing for a political agreement in the Environment Council.

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