Embargoed until 00:01 hours, Friday February 9, 2007.
Campaigners are urging the government to include safeguards for the UK's best wildlife sites in a new anti-pollution law.
A report published today by the RSPB, GeneWatch UK and 12 other groups warns that almost 2,400 Sites of Special Scientific Interest and 80 per cent of wildlife subject to government action plans will be unprotected by the legislation.
Water voles, red squirrels, black grouse, basking sharks and the cornflower are amongst a wide of range species to be excluded if the government ignores powers to strengthen the Environmental Liability Directive, the report, Making the Polluter Pay, warns.
It adds that those responsible for GM crop contamination, harm caused by waste disposal and water abstraction could all evade environmental responsibilities. Shipping operators, such as those owning the MSC Napoli, which beached off the south-west coast last month causing damage and death to wildlife, will also be off the hook.
The government fears that the cost to business of prevention and environmental repair will be too high so is set to exempt companies from some of the law's toughest provisions. If business is excused, taxpayers will pay for pollution clean-ups.
Sandy Luk, the RSPB's expert on the directive said: "Business must be made to take responsibility for the damage it causes and shunning this opportunity will leave wildlife vulnerable to some of the worst environmental damage we have seen. The Napoli disaster is an example of disasters that could and should be covered by this law. This legislation is going to be a real test of the government‚s commitment to the environment."
Dr Helen Wallace, Director of GeneWatch UK, said: "This is a green light to allow genetic contamination with impunity. Government and industry have failed to convince people that GM crops are either safe or necessary and yet if anything did go wrong, it‚s the public that would have to pay."
Pete Riley, of GM Freeze, said: "Most of the farmland and the majority of farmland wildlife species are not covered by Defra's proposals. This means along with other exemptions that the cultivation of genetically modified crops will escape liability."
Thomas Bell, Coastal Pollution Officer for the Marine Conservation Society, said: "The Environmental Liability Directive is about protecting the environment, including the sea, from human damage. Unfortunately, this European law will do nothing to protect some of our most vulnerable marine species unless the government strengthens its proposals for the UK."
Mark Lloyd, Director of the Anglers‚ Conservation Association, said: "The ACA is exasperated with seeing polluters who damage the water environment get let off with paltry fines. The government's current interpretation of this Directive will make things even worse."
Dr Jim Thompson, Executive Director of the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management, said: "Opportunities seem destined to be lost in the implementation of the Directive. The exclusion of SSSIs will deprive some of Britain's wildlife jewels of the extra protection they need. Distinguishing sites that are covered from sites that are not will be an administrative nightmare and means the polluter pays principle will be only partially applied. This is inconsistent with the government's support of international agreements to protect wildlife."
Kirtana Chandrasekaran, Food Campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: "The government's weak approach to liability undermines existing rules for biodiversity protection and fails to address potential damage from GM contamination. GM crops pose unique risks and the government must make GM companies liable for the potentially far-reaching and expensive damage caused by GM contamination, instead of the burden of any clean up falling on farmers and taxpayers."
Jo Wharam, Conservation Officer at the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, said: "This is a golden opportunity to introduce higher levels of environmental protection and to encourage businesses to take a precautionary approach to their activities. However, the government seems to be pursuing a minimal approach to the implementation of the Directive, which sends out the message that human damage to biodiversity is permissible. This is at odds with the UK Sustainable Development Strategy and is totally unacceptable."
Victoria Chester, Chief Executive of Plantlife, said: "If the government fails to take this opportunity to protect species and sites which it has identified as nationally important, it would send out the message that the UK's most vulnerable plants and animals are less important than the interests of business; saddening but perhaps not surprising."
Cath Harris, Media Officer, RSPB: 07739 921464
Dr Helen Wallace, GeneWatch UK: 07903 311584.
The following images, of species set to be excluded, are free for use only with this story. Please contact Naddy Tweed at RSPB Images for digital copies: email@example.com ; 0114 258 0001.
- Cirl bunting ref 1004350; Carlos Sanchez (rspb-images.com)
- Bullfinch ref 1003019; Chris Knights (rspb-images.com)
- Corn bunting ref 1010081; Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
- Red squirrel ref 1009147; Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
- Dormouse ref 1002519; David Kjaer (rspb-images.com)
- Water vole ref 1005647; John Markham (rspb-images.com)
Notes to editors:
- Full details of the ELD consultation are at http://www.defra.gov.uk/corporate/consult/env-liability
- A copy of Making the Polluter Pay is available from Cath Harris on 07739 921464 or Sandy Luk at firstname.lastname@example.org
- The following groups are backing the RSPB/GeneWatch UK report: GM Freeze, Anglers Conservation Association, Greenpeace, Marine Conservation Society, Herpetological Conservation Trust, British Brown Hare Preservation Society, Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management, WWF-UK, Friends of the Earth, Plantlife, Wildlife Trusts.
- Oil from the Napoli threatened 28 Sites of Special Scientific Interest.
- SSSIs: are protected by law, but the ELD goes much further. Restoration of SSSIs damaged under Wildlife & Countryside Act is dependent upon a successful criminal prosecution. This is not necessary under the ELD by which the polluter is under an immediate duty to restore. This means that the ELD applies earlier and more immediately than the WCA and effectively catches a much wider range of potential polluters.
- Biodiversity Action Plans (individual species and habitats): Under current law, BAP lists must be produced and reasonable steps taken to improve conservation. There is no way of making polluters pay for the damage they cause to BAP habitats or species.
- The need for a European environmental liability regime became apparent after a succession of environmental disasters. These included an accident at an herbicide plant in Seveso, Italy, in July 1976 when the gas dioxin leaked killing thousands of animals and prompting the slaughter of thousands more. In April 1998, a billion gallons of toxic waste spilled from a zinc mine polluting 6,000 hectares of rivers and marshlands close to the Coto Doñana national park in southern Spain, killing thousands of fish and birds. In December 2000, the tanker Erika spilled 10 million litres of oil into the Atlantic killing around 100,000 seabirds with much of the oil washing up on the French coast.
- Environmental liability measures were first proposed in 1989 followed by a European Commission Green Paper four years later, a White Paper in 2000 and a weak Commission proposal in January 2002. The Directive, therefore, is a very important piece of European environmental legislation, which has been long awaited. Its development was marked by controversy and conflict and the final text bears the mark of this.
- At Buncefield in Hertfordshire, on December 11 2005, a huge explosion at an oil depot caused oil to burn for days and a massive plume of smoke to darken the sky before drifting south-west. Amazingly, there was very little environmental damage outside the plant.
- The government's consultation paper states that "it is the Government‚s policy not to go beyond the minimum requirements of a Directive unless there are exceptional circumstances, justified by a cost benefit analysis and following extensive stakeholder engagement. The Government's starting point, therefore, is a strong presumption in favour of minimum transposition. Only if the conditions above are satisfied is a different approach justified."
- In the Government's own cost-benefit analysis in the Regulatory Impact Assessment attached to the consultation document, measures going beyond the minimum implementation option are identified which would help the environment. These benefits would outweigh their cost, yet the Government favours minimum implementation.
- Currently, 27 per cent (290,037 ha) of SSSI designated land in England is classified as being in unfavourable condition by Natural England. Examples of sites in poor condition are Leighton Moss SSSI in Lancashire and South Pennine Moors SSSI. Leighton Moss SSSI, a 129-hectare site that is also an RSPB reserve, is deteriorating because of pollution from agriculture in the surrounding area. The 21,000-hectare South Pennine Moors SSSI is in unfavourable condition because of moor burning, air pollution, overgrazing and drainage.
- The 2000 Countryside and Rights of Way Act does provide some protection for habitats and species that have biodiversity action plans (BAPs) but there is no means of enforcing this protection; the law merely established the BAP concept without giving powers of action against those harming protected species through activities such as pollution. Powers exist to take action when SSSIs are damaged under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act but the ELD goes further because it is wider in scope.
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