The EU's latest report on implementation of the Seveso II Directive records a decline in the number of serious accidents. At the same time, however, concerns remain that the reporting system used is neither as coherent nor as effective as it should be.
On 10th July 1976 an industrial accident at a small chemical manufacturing plant in Seveso, near Milan in Italy resulted in a huge leak of a dioxin known as TCDD. This in turn led to a raft of EU regulations concerning the handling, storage and use of dangerous substances.
Officially known as Council Directive 96/82/EC1 on the control of major-accident hazards involving dangerous substances, the so-called Seveso II Directive aims at the prevention of major-accident hazards involving dangerous substances and at the limitation of the consequences of such accidents for man and the environment.
The Seveso II Directive applies to thousands of industrial establishments where dangerous substances are present.
Every three years, each of the 27 member states has to provide a report relating to all of its upper-tier - higher risk - establishments. These reports are then drawn together by the EU Commission to highlight how the directive is being applied.
The intention of this summary is to assess the level of implementation and to identify any shortcomings. The Commission expects that where low figures are reported this will encourage the member states concerned to improve implementation.
In December 2008, 4528 upper tier establishments were reported, an increase over the previous three years of 14 per cent (up from 3949). If new members Romania and Bulgaria are not included, the increase is 10 per cent.
The number of major accidents is a key indicator to measure the performance of the directive and its aim to prevent accidents. Per year, around 20-35 major accidents occur in the EU. However, the Commission notes that delays in accident reporting mainly caused by the time taken to complete legal proceedings, the figures for the last few years may still rise.
However considering the increase in the number of establishments, relatively fewer major accidents happened per establishment. The frequency of accidents, which had for many years been higher than 3 per 1000 establishments per year, seems to be falling to under three on average for the latest reporting period.
In terms of inspections, all Seveso sites have to be inspected or be subject to control measures appropriate to the type of establishment concerned. Unless there is programme of inspections based upon a systematic appraisal of major accident hazards of the particular establishment concerned, each establishment shall be subject to at least one on-site inspection every 12 months.
The member states' replies show that in 2008 66 per cent of the establishments were inspected. This figure is practically unchanged in comparison with 2005: 69 per cent, or 2002: 66 per cent.
The figures provided do not allow clear conclusions to be drawn as the frequency of inspections is linked to the programme of inspections. This aspect, notes the Commission, may warrant further examination in due course, particularly in those cases where the reported figures are low.
Conclusions and the way forward
Commenting on its analysis, the Commission believes that the directive is working well and that implementation by the member states has substantially improved. The number of Seveso establishments increased in this reporting period by 10 per cent to 4528 sites whilst the number of major accidents decreased. "However there are deficiencies in some areas in some member states. Remedial action should be taken where appropriate further to improve implementation," the report notes.
Industry operators would appear to comply to a large extent with the requirements of the directive as demonstrated by the figures about the quantity of safety reports and internal emergency plans this.
Concerning the obligation of authorities to draw up external emergency plans, a steep rise can be noted in the last few years. By the end of 2008, the level of available external plans had reached over 90 per cent, a level that should have subsequently increased further following the infringement procedures launched against most member states in 2007/2008. "This clearly demonstrates that improved enforcement of such requirements is useful and helps to improve safety. This example also shows the usefulness of this reporting exercise, which provides for possible shortcomings in application to be identified as well as progress made in remedying these," says the report.
So far as other obligations of authorities are concerned, the Commission says that this reporting exercise has its limitations. Comparison with previous reporting periods indicate a positive trend in overall performance, but it is difficult to draw clear conclusions on the basis of figures that refer to different or unknown frequencies or reference periods, or where the relevant provisions in the directive give a wider time-frame for the various actions, such as for 'tests' of emergency plans, information to the public, or for inspections. The increase in tested emergency plans, for example, rising from around 40-60 per cent, indicates positive progress, but "does not enable any conclusions to be drawn about the quality of the plans, the tests or the response arrangements".
While the overall performance on information supplied to public has increased, the EU says it is still not optimal. Moreover the bare figures show a wide variation between member states, and information is lacking about the ways how information is supplied and measured. The results raise doubts whether information on safety measures and the requisite behaviour in the event of an accident has in fact reached all the people liable to be affected. The Commission notes that this topic, and the possible need to strengthen and improve the effectiveness of the existing provisions, will be addressed in the current review of the directive that is being carried out.
As regards inspections, it is interesting to note that the overall percentage of inspected establishments is practically unchanged over the last three reporting periods. The figures reveal nothing about the quality and effectiveness of inspections. Furthermore it is unclear whether or not any improvements are necessary or would be feasible. The Commission notes that a relatively high number of establishments remain uninspected in a given year. It assumes that this may be due to inspection frequency being followed in line with the flexibility provided by the directive relating to programmes of inspections. However, some improvements to ensure better inspections and more coordination, also at EU level, may be warranted.
Finally, the Commission notes that the quality and volume of the data submitted to the Commission has not changed much in recent reporting periods and that this exercise produces only limited meaningful results. Therefore the Commission intends to address the reporting system itself in the review, with a view to ensuring more coherent and effective arrangements for all information obligations under the directive, without imposing unnecessary additional burdens on operators and authorities.
In terms of the way forward, the commission will take the findings of this report into account in the review of the directive, which is expected to lead to a legal proposal for a revised or new directive later this year. The review will address the overall effectiveness of the directive and examine possible improvements taking into account the conclusions of this report.
This summary is the penultimate report under the existing directive. The questionnaire for next reporting period 2009-2011 has already been agreed. Member states are invited to report about the application in the current period by 30September 2012. Future reporting beyond that period is likely to be subject to the next directive.
Finally, the Commission says it will monitor progress on implementation closely, and take action as appropriate. In particular, it will continue to support and assist member states in their implementation activities, and encourage them further to improve their level of performance where necessary