A Response to DEFRA

Here follows MARINET’s correspondence with DEFRA, concerning their ‘Bathing Water Newsletter’ detailing the implementation of the forthcoming revised 2006/7/EC Bathing Waters Directive.
Defra’s Bathing Water Newsletter was issued in October 2006.

Letter to James Biott of DEFRA from Pat Gowen

15th January 07

Dear James,

I respond as requested, very belatedly I regret, to your communication of 6th October ’06 and your provision of the ‘Bathing Water Newsletter’ detailing the implementation of the forthcoming revised 2006/7/EC Bathing Waters Directive.

You will be aware of my input to this revised Directive on behalf of both MARINET and the North Sea Action Group in the past, when we fully participated in the consultation process, listing a number of improvements that we would wish to see in the replacement of the original 76/160/EEC Bathing Waters Directive.

These included (among others) :

  1. That the new Directive should recognise the large increase in water immersion by wind-surfers, kite-surfers and the like during the months outside the May to September ‘Bathing Season’ and that consequently the monitoring and reporting should be ongoing all the year round.
  2. That the new Directive should contain a clear and unambiguous requirement to always investigate and factually report the presence (or absence) of mandatory listed enteroviruses and salmonella, these being the major infective pathogens capable of causing serious illness. These agents, when found present in the past, still resulted in bathing waters being reported as compliant with the Directive mandatory standard by the governments misinterpretation of the rulings.
    Furthermore, increasingly so in the past five years, they have not even been investigated, yet still resulting in false claims of mandatory compliance when this has been based upon coliform concentrations only. Even DEFRA’s direction to sample for enteroviruses and salmonella if the bathing water failed the imperative coliform concentrations the previous year has been ignored in this years analyses.
    It was this escape loophole which we wished to see abolished in the new Directive by requiring a firm direction to sample for these two parameters regularly, and to report the bathing water as a ‘pass’ only when the bathing water shows an absence of enteroviruses and salmonella, a mandatory failure when found present, or of unknown mandatory conformity when incompletely tested. Now we see no such sampling requirement whatsoever in the new Directive, so negating the false claim that the public health aspects have been improved.
  3. That the collection, storage and delay before culturing should be standardised. As it exists, many resorts samples await periods of until late the next day before they are placed to culture, so providing a coliform count of down to 10% or less of that level found in the water at the time of sampling. Thus the levels claimed are frequently false, but can be used to provide false compliance. We asked that if such delay resulted between sampling and culture that a correcting factor be applied to allow for the T-90 decrease of coliform numbers. This has been totally ignored in the new Directive.
  4. We asked that the presence of any new and dangerous pathogens (such as E-Coli-0157 likely to be present when abattoir waste is discharged to an outfall) should additionally be investigated. Further, with the newly mutated ‘SARS’ coronavirus linked to sewage proving so contagious, tests for the presence of this dangerous pathogen also needed to be instituted, as well as any new mutant infective transmissible pathogens discovered in the future.
  5. We note that the new Directive will allow for the discounting of up to 15% of samples. We cannot see other than that this may be used as a further means of escaping condemnation for failing waters, as repeated samplings could be instituted until one that passes the requirements results, so further producing false compliance.

Thus we see the new Directive as a great disappointment, both in terms of degrading the public health aspects and in that all of our suggestions to promote a Directive based upon this need have been totally ignored in favour of the hype of presenting the sewage pollution of our bathing waters in a better light than really exists, only in the interest of reducing expenditure for meaningful testing and in promoting favourable publicity for both the water companies and seaside tourist trade.

We further feel that the consultation process provided was merely a means of pretension of gathering input, in that our proposals were ignored and were apparently rejected out of hand without discussion, and as having no value and no impact upon decisions made.

Yours Sincerely, Pat Gowen, MARINET and NSAG

Reply from James Biott, Policy Adviser to DERA on Bathing Water

31st January 07

Pat

Following on from my previous email to you (and the one I received from Stephen), I have looked again at the issues you raised in your email.

I would first just like to say that we are sorry that you are disappointed with the outcome of the negotiations for the revised Bathing Water Directive. I am obviously now aware of your longstanding interest in the old Bathing Water Directive and the enterovirus and salmonella parameters in particular and I will pick up on some of the points you raise in your email below. However, as I am sure you are aware, your ideas (or similar suggestions) did not win sufficient support in the European Parliament and the Council to be included in the revised Bathing Water Directive. We are now in the process of implementing the Directive and you and your colleagues will of course have the opportunity to comment on our proposals when we consult later this year.

In relation to the first point you make regarding the monitoring of bathing waters outside of the bathing season for other recreational activities, I understand that many Member States were not in favour of extending the scope of the Directive beyond traditional bathing on grounds of practicability and costs. Also other activities such as wind-surfing often take place at sites which are not recognised as bathing waters and involve different levels of exposure to the water. There would therefore be significant practical implications for Member States in terms of increased monitoring requirements if all possible sites and activities were covered. However, this does not mean that Local Authorities, private beach operators or other parties cannot pay to have the waters monitored year round as I believe is the case in some parts of the country.

You go on to suggest that the new Directive should have contained a requirement to sample for enteroviruses and salmonella. The revised Bathing Water Directive standards are for bacterial indicators of faecal pollution which are relatively easy to monitor and for which there was some epidemiological evidence to set standards to protect health. It is likely that the issue of viruses will be discussed again during a future revision of the Directive, if the science to routinely and reliably measure their presence has been further developed in the meantime.

You mention that the handling of samples should be standardised. Annex V of the revised Directive sets out “rules on the handling of samples for microbiological analyses” and in particular, paragraph 4 sets out the rules for the “storage and transport of samples before analysis”. The Directive suggests that samples should be analysed on the same working day, but where this is not possible within no more than 24 hours (and the samples shall be stored in the dark at 4°C +/- 3°C).

Regarding the issue of discounting, I think it is worth mentioning that samples can only be discounted during short term pollution events, as long as the public has been warned in advance that the water quality may be unsuitable for bathing and if measures are actively being taken to prevent, eliminate or reduce the causes of pollution in the bathing water’s catchment area. Therefore, we believe that discounting should not be seen as a way of avoiding taking measures to improve bathing water quality, but instead as a fall back option where measures have been taken, but factors outside our control are polluting the water (e.g. animals/ birds) and it will be disproportionately expensive or technically unfeasible to remedy the situation. Regarding your specific point that repeated samples could be taken until one meets the Directive standards, the Directive clearly states in Annex IV paragraph 4 that

“in the event of short term pollution, one additional sample is to be taken to confirm that the incident has ended. This sample is not to be part of the set of bathing water quality data. If necessary to replace a disregarded sample, an additional sample is to be taken seven days after the end of the short term pollution”.

The Directive therefore does not give us the option to keep taking samples until one passes.

Regards James

James Biott
Policy Adviser
Water Quality Division (1)
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Room 305
55 Whitehall
London, SW1A 2HH

Response from Pat Gowen and Stephen Eades o.b.o. MARINET

5th February 07

Dear James,

Thank you for your detailed e-mail of January 31st. and for your dedicated efforts in replying to MARINET on the matter of our disappointment with the revised Bathing Waters Directive.

It is unfortunate that we did not have the lobbying powers of those with vested interest in the outcome. We had the feeling from the very outset that things would go the way they have, but at least we tried to argue for the issues which we believe to be vital and to establish them within the Directive, as did other environmentally concerned organisations.

We can appreciate that greater short term financial costs will come about with an improved Directive. However, we also believe that the long term cost to health and to seaside tourism income will probably be far greater as a consequence of a more lax monitoring regime. Your vision for the future fails to recognise that as seas warm as a result of Global Warming this may easily result in greater national and international use of our seaside resorts with, almost inevitably, an increased need for monitoring and an increased level of revenue becoming available to finance this monitoring.

We believe that the decision to reduce standards via less monitoring will also undermine the economies of coastal communities by the likely reduction of all-the-year round enjoyment of the sea by recreational wind surfers, sailboarders and the like, so further reducing income to areas that are vitally dependent upon such visitor income.

It is certainly true to say that to monitor for the presence of salmonella and enteroviruses (particularly the latter) is far more costly than that for enterococci and coliforms, but as many of these microbiological parameters now absent from the new revised Directive are dangerous pathogens that remain infective for long periods in sea water, the removal of the means of recognition of their presence offers a potential menace to the health and welfare of unsuspecting swimmers, sea recreationalists and beach users, and so threatens a further burden on our health and welfare services.

As regards the storage and handling of samples, I gave evidence on this matter to the House of Commons Environment Committee on the Pollution of Beaches. This is to be found in the Fourth Report, Session 1989-90, ‘Pollution of Beaches’, Volume III, Appendices, pages 477- 482, ISBN 0 10 297890 5. My tests showed that the coliform decay rate could vary by a factor of 10 according to the temperature, sludge and dissolved oxygen content and the light penetration. The same factors come into play in the holding time and conditions of samples of sea water before placing to culture in the laboratory. The coliforms remaining in the sample can be down to less than 10% of those present at the point and time of sampling, thus giving a very misleading presentation of the real content present in the sea itself. It was for this reason that I recommended deployment of the ‘PAQUALAB’ methodology, i.e. instantaneous introduction to the culture medium, which gives realistic result levels. This was obviously totally ignored by those building the new Directive.

As for the issue of discounting seriously polluted samples, I still see that this clause could be used so as to produce a later sampling that indicates a ‘pass’. You may not see this as being a means of producing a desirable result, but we feel the mechanism for this now exists, with a danger that it could be put into practice to promote bathing resorts that fail the requirements.

Summing up, we feel that the new Directive has serious shortcomings even when compared to the 76/160/EC Bathing Waters Directive, which, because of its ambiguous wording, gave the opportunity of misinterpretation by member states, Britain in particular. This was stated clearly in the report by the House of Commons Environment Committee on the Pollution of Beaches, as was the issue of salmonella and enteroviruses.

We decidedly feel that the opportunity to improve the original Bathing Waters Directive has been sacrificed to short-term mercenary interests at the expense of public health, coastal business interests and people’s well being.

Yours Sincerely, Pat Gowen and Stephen Eades,
o.b.o. The North Sea Action Group & MARINET


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