Parliament approves soil strategy despite calls for its dismissal

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Overriding a motion by 225 MEPs who argued that there should be ‘no rush’ to legislate on soil protection, the Parliament has voted in favour of a proposed EU soil protection law that grants considerable flexibility to member states. 

In its first reading vote on 13 November, Parliament voted largely in favour of the report endorsed in October by the ENVI committee, backing the notion of public inventories, as well as the requirement that member states draw up soil remediation strategies seven years after the directive enters into force.

Further elements of the Parliament’s vote include the request that member states list (six years after transposition of the directive) locations where soil-affecting activities have taken place. Potential buyers must also be informed of past activities on sites, particularly in cases where hazardous substances have been used.

The Commission is requested to present, two years after transposition, a proposal for a biowaste directive that sets standards for the use of biowaste on soils.

Five years after transposition, member states are to identify soil protection ‘priority areas’ and take appropriate measures to protect against erosion, biodiversity loss and other threats. Those member states that already have corresponding legislation in place, such as Germany, the Netherlands and the UK, are exempt from this requirement.

Parliament also voted in favour of adding a list of potentially contaminated sites to the directive, re-inserting an annex that had been previously deleted by the ENVI Committee. 

A sizeable grouping of MEPs, in particular from the UK and Ireland, pushed for the entire proposal to be rejected outright, but this motion was dismissed with 395 votes against and 225 in favour.

Those MEPs who voted against the measure outright included UK Christian Democrat MEP Neil Parish, who argued that further soil regulations will simply hurt farmers.

Irish eurosceptic MEP Kathy Sinnott said that the need for harmonised EU legislation on water and air quality does not apply to soils because of widely differing regional soil conditions. Her argument was backed by UK Independent MEP Jim Allister, who called the proposal "power hungry" and said that soil "does not flow from state to state" like air or water.  

Other members of parliament who called for a rejection of the proposal included UK MEP Jeffrey Titford of the Independence and Democracy group, Irish Christian Democrat MEP Mairead McGuinness and UK MEP Robert Sturdy of the UK. 

But rapporteur and MEP Cristina Gutiérrez-Cortines said that the text takes into account "the enormous differences existing among soils and leaves the national authorities with the choice of the forms and the methods to protect them". The vote was also welcomed by the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE).

In a press release entitled "Could have been worse", the Greens/EFA group said that the vote "is far from sufficient in protecting the soil from degradation, but it is a step in right direction to what is required to protect this precious resource".

Pekka Pesonen, Secretary General of COPA-COGECA, the Committee of Professional Agricultural Organisations in the European Union, expressed the organisations concern about the outcome of the vote. Existing cross-compliance obligations and the Landfill and Nitrates Directives "ensure soil restoration and protection against any negative impacts of agricultural activities. This new directive will only create more bureaucracy and more difficulties for the farming sector", Pensonen said in a press statement. 

The Commission's proposed framework directive on soil, part of its September 2006 soil strategy, defines common principles, objectives and actions but shies away from setting specific targets for member states.

On 9 October, MEPs in the Environment (ENVI) Committee voted in favour of a report, drafted by Spanish centre-right MEP and rapporteur Cristina Gutiérrez-Cortines, which calls on member states to list contaminated sites in public inventories that must be updated at least every five years. 

The soil dossier is not without controversy. In October, members from the EPP-ED group 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.

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