Cleaner sea bathing plan blocked by EU ministers

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European Union ministers yesterday blocked plans to introduce new bathing water purity standards designed to cut the risk of swimmers contracting illnesses from polluted seas.

Britain was among a group of countries -including France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Ireland - that opposed measures to introduce stricter scientific tests when assessing the safety of beaches and inland water areas.

Environmental groups argue that too little is being done to prevent bathing water being contaminated by human sewage and animal manure.

The European Commission calculates that current standards - set out in a 1976 directive - allow enough pollution to enter the sea to create a 12 per cent risk of contracting gastro-enteritis. The commission wanted to tighten controls and reduce the risk to five per cent. That would make guidelines laid down by the World Health Organisation legally binding.

The Italian presidency of the EU, chairing its last meeting before handing over to Ireland in January, needed the backing of all 15 member states to pass the plan.

Stefan Scheuer, the senior policy officer for the European Environmental Bureau, condemned the failure to agree a deal. He said: "With the current standards we have quite a high risk of illnesses and diseases from bathing.

"There is a worrying tendency, with a number of governments questioning whether we need a bathing water policy and trying to weaken the current clear and legally-binding scheme."

Surfers Against Sewage, which claims its members are up to three times more susceptible to gastro-enteritis than other swimmers, criticised current standards. Richard Hardy, the campaign director, said: "This directive is 27 years old. It is not protecting the public in their use of water. We have to have this change."

The UK argued that the commission's proposal was scientifically flawed. Figures from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, show that the risk of contracting gastro-enteritis from water passed as safe is 4.3 per cent, not 12 per cent.

Britain said that, because of sudden rainfall, beaches can be polluted for short periods as manure from farms is washed into flowing water. But it argued that swimmers could be warned at times of greater risk.

Under the commission's proposals, about one-quarter of British beaches would have been declared unsafe, as opposed to 2 per cent now. Even after the completion of improvements already under way, 15 per cent of UK beaches would have failed the test.

A compromise plan put forward by Italy would have introduced the 5 per cent target in 2015, but this would only have been legally binding if countries voted for it in 2012. In the meantime a 10 per cent figure would have been put in place.

Margot Walström, the European Commissioner for the environment, said the Italian compromise had been rejected because "we, in the end, thought at least we had to have a binding date" for implementation of new minimum standards. She added: "We want to hold on to the environmental integrity of this proposal".