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Surface water and groundwater: Council agrees negotiating mandate to update list of pollutants

  • Surface water and groundwater: Council agrees negotiating mandate to update list of pollutants
    Pablo González-Cebrián/iAgua Photos.

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European Council
The General Secretariat of the Council is a body of staff responsible for assisting the European Council and the Council of the EU. It helps organise and ensure the coherence of the Council's work and the implementation of its 18-month...

Today the Council agreed its negotiating mandate on the directive which will amend the water framework directive, the groundwater directive and the directive on environmental quality standards. The proposal updates priority substances and environmental quality standards in surface water and groundwater.

The Council’s mandate sets a balance between keeping ambitious goals for the EU’s water policy and providing flexibility for member states in the implementation of water legislation, while keeping a level-playing field and reducing administrative burden.

Today the Council has taken another important step towards further improving the quality of European water. Reducing pollutants and extending the monitoring to new substances, like forever chemicals or pharmaceuticals, in surface waters and groundwater is crucial in order to protect human health and our ecosystems.

Alain Maron, minister of the Government of the Brussels-Capital Region, responsible for climate change, environment, energy and participatory democracy

Updated list of water pollutants

The proposal updates the list of water pollutants by adding new pollutants and related quality standards for some per- and poly-fluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS), pharmaceuticals and pesticides.

Forever chemicals (PFAS)

PFAS are a large group of 'forever chemicals' used in cookware, clothing and furniture, fire-fighting foam and personal care products. Member states agreed to maintain the Commission’s proposal on setting environmental quality standards for the sum of 24 PFAS in surface water.

Pesticides

The Commission’s proposal to add quality standards for non-relevant metabolites of pesticides has been simplified. The Council also added the obligation for the Commission to establish a list of known pesticides, indicating if they are relevant or not.

Pharmaceuticals

Member states agreed to maintain the Commission’s proposal for listing individual pharmaceutical products, used as painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs, as well as antibiotics. The negotiating mandate provides for a stepwise approach when there is evidence that stricter quality standards need to be set to protect the ecosystem.

Monitoring and reporting

The water framework directive requires member states to submit their river basin management plans and to report on the status of water bodies in their countries. For this, the current water framework directive applies a one-out-all-out principle. This means that all ecological and chemical indicators should meet the quality standards set in EU legislation.

This principle makes it difficult to show overall progress. Therefore, member states agreed that the Commission will set indicators at EU level to measure progress in a uniform way, also in situations where not all quality standards are at good status.

The negotiating mandate provides for intermediate reporting, new monitoring techniques, including remote sensing, and the possibility to set up an EU-wide monitoring facility to help member states with their tasks.

Member states also clarified the concept of deterioration of the status of a water body: short-term activities effects without lasting consequences or already existing pollution relocation within or between waterbodies will not be considered as deterioration, as long as they do not produce an overall increase in pollution.

Groundwater pollutants

As regards groundwater substances identified as being of national concern, the negotiating mandate narrows down the scope and sets EU-wide values only for synthetic substances. In addition, member states will have until 2039 to achieve good groundwater chemical status.

As groundwater is the main source for drinking water in many member states, the negotiating mandate aligns the PFAS requirement for groundwater with the drinking water directive, which sets quality standards for 20 PFAS. It also includes quality standards for the four most problematic PFAS.

The negotiating mandate introduces a mandatory 'watch list mechanism' for groundwater similar to the already existing one for surface water. The Council clarified that microplastics and anti-microbial resistance genes will be included in the watch list only once harmonised monitoring and evaluation standards are in place.

Future reviews and transposition

In their negotiating mandate, member states stressed the need to update the relevant pollutants list for surface water and groundwater through legislative acts to be adopted according to the ordinary legislative procedure, instead of the initial proposal to have them amended via delegated acts of the Commission.

The negotiating mandate allows for member states to transpose the directive in two years instead of 18 months, as initially proposed by the Commission.

Next steps

The agreement on the Council’s negotiating mandate allows its presidency to start talks with the European Parliament on the final text. The European Parliament adopted its position on 24 April 2024.

Background

Chemical pollution of surface and groundwater poses a threat to the aquatic environment, with effects such as acute and chronic toxicity in aquatic organisms, accumulation of pollutants in the ecosystem and loss of habitats and biodiversity, as well as to human health.

This proposal addresses the legal obligation of the EU to regularly review the lists of pollutants affecting surface and groundwaters. Setting environmental standards contributes to the European Green Deal's zero pollution ambition of having an environment free of harmful pollution by 2050.

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