Parliament and Politics: Britain agrees ban on dumping at sea

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN agreed to sign a new treaty on reducing pollution in the north-east Atlantic yesterday after hours of tough, late-night negotiations in Paris produced a compromise on dumping nuclear waste at sea.

Under the convention, to be signed by 13 coastal European nations, all forms of waste dumping at sea will be outlawed, with few exceptions.

Britain and France had wanted to keep open the option of disposing of low and intermediate level radioactive solid waste at sea in future, but agreed to a 15-year moratorium.

David Maclean, Minister for the Environment and Countryside, had argued that although Britain had no plans to dump radioactive waste at sea, this might turn out to be the best disposal route for bulky items taken from decommissioned nuclear installations and submarines.

Once the moratorium has expired, nations can only use the sea disposal route if they have consulted all the other signatory nations and carried out research that shows no threat to human health or marine life. As nuclear powers, Britain and France were the only nations pressing for this option. The new convention, which builds on two existing sea pollution treaties, sets up a framework for protecting the marine environment which embraces the principle that governments and industries which wish to dispose of wastes in rivers and seas should err on the side of caution.

The 13 nations agreed to eliminate all discharges of dangerous chemicals, including chlorine-containing organic chemicals such as polychlorinated bipheynyls - PCBs. These were widely used by the electrical industry but their manufacture is now banned; once released into the environment they are very slow to break down and are toxic at low concentrations. There is no timetable for eliminating discharges of dangerous chemicals, only a commitment that they should be reduced to levels not harmful to man or nature by 2000.

Greenpeace said it was the first time Britain had agreed in principle to a complete elimination of dangerous chemicals.