"Groundwater is our most important natural resource. Over half of the EU's groundwater sources are polluted. Once polluted they can no longer be cleaned up. Hence the importance of protecting them." This, in the words of Parliament's rapporteur Christa Klass (EPP-ED, DE) is the key issue being tackled by a new European directive.
Ms Klass, whose second-reading recommendation on the protection of groundwater against pollution was adopted by a large majority. MEPs were not happy with the Council's common position, which they said did not pay sufficient attention to prevention. A number of first-reading amendments were reintroduced.
The text adopted by the Parliament does not impose single standards for all countries, except for nitrates and pesticides, but it does seek to harmonise methods for measuring potential pollutants. MEPs wish to beef up the directive on a number of points, by improving sampling methodologies, tightening up the wording of the legislation and closing loopholes to prevent the directive being undermined. As in the water framework directive, the notion of "deterioration" is absent. Parliament wants to enlarge the scope of the directive by including a definition of deterioration which would mean "any slight, anthropogenically induced and persistent increase in concentrations of pollutants in relation to the status quo in the groundwater". MEPs also want to include two other notions: background concentration and baseline concentration.
Where the rules on nitrates and pesticides would require changes to farming practices, MEPs suggest providing special aid through the rural development plans which will be drawn up under the reformed common agricultural policy. For around ten other substances, the directive leaves it up to Member States to lay down limit values. These threshold must be established by December 2008 at the latest. Arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury and sulphates are concerned. The resultant range of national standards should, however, be the subject of an impact study on the environment and the single market.
The standards adopted should be reviewed five years after the entry into force of the directive (i.e. 2011 if the legislative procedure is completed in 2006) and every six years thereafter. In addition, MEPs want the directive to be the subject of an overall efficiency assessment by 2015.
Among other improvements introduced by the House are the establishment of a common methodology for the protection of spa and medicinal waters and tougher rules, e.g. to ensure that catchment areas for drinking water are indeed protected by the new directive when industrial and urban activities are planned, since in most Member States drinking water is usually taken from groundwater.
Finally, MEPs say this Directive shall not prevent individual Member States from maintaining or introducing stricter protection measures.