Environmental Liability Consultation

* To read the article by Sue Mayer of GeneWatch in The Guardian (10th January 2007) 'Off the hook. New environmental laws bring in the notion that the polluter should pay, so why is the UK choosing the weakest option?click here.


Background to the consultation

On Friday 1st December 2006, the Government launched its consultation on how it proposes to implement the Environmental Liability Directive in UK law. The proposals also cover Wales and Northern Ireland. A separate consultation for Scotland is was launched on 21st December 2006. The Directive covers GM organisms and a range of other potentially hazardous practices (such as waste disposal). Only GMOs are considered here. The closing date for the consultation is 16th February in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and 23rd March 2007 in Scotland.

Although the new laws are intended to implement the 'polluter pays' principle, the Government's proposals are very weak. If they are not strengthened, if environmental damage arose from the use of genetically modified organisms (such as the disruption of an ecosystem if a GM plant became invasive, or if a toxin in a GM crop harmed non target species), it is highly unlikely that the biotech company producing the organism would be expected to pay to remedy the damage. Even if damage does occur that falls within the scope of the Directive, it would be the person using the GMO (the 'operator') who would be considered responsible - this means the farmer growing a GM crop or a doctor or veterinary surgeon using a GM vaccine.

Other loopholes the Government proposes so the biotech industry can avoid having to take responsibility for its products are:

  • Excluding the majority of the UK's protected species and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs);
  • Excluding ponds, streams and small waterways;
  • Allowing companies or individuals to argue that if a permit or license has been given for the activity that they should not have to contribute to the costs of remediation. However, the Welsh Assembly has said that it does not intend not allow this defense for GMOs;
  • Excluding environmental harm to soil (soil is only included if the damage caused to it will harm human health).

What you can do

It is important that people ensure the Government hears their views on the proposals. The consultation document can be accessed via the DEFRA web site if you click here. For Scotland, click here.

The consultation document is long and technical. Anyone could be forgiven for thinking that is has nothing to do with GMOs - but it does and it is very important!

Do not be put off by their document, this is your chance to have a say so please send a submission to DEFRA. There are several GeneWatch briefings that can help you with this (see side bar on right). The most important points we believe you should make are that:

  1. Strict liability for any environmental liability harm that may arise from the use of GM organisms is an essential safeguard for their use. The polluter pays principle must apply.
  2. Biotech companies, not farmers, doctors or veterinary surgeons should be held liable for environmental harm.
  3. As a very minimum, all SSSIs and protected species should be included within the scope of environmental liability.
    • A list of the SSSIs in England that will be excluded is available if you click here. You could refer to SSSIs in your county that are important to you and explain how you feel that no biotechnology company producing a GMO that causes damage to them will be required to pay to repair the damage.
    • A list of the protected species that will be excluded is available if you click here.  You should explain how you feel that that no biotechnology company producing a GMO that causes damage to a species such as the water vole, red squirrel or tree sparrow, will be required to pay to repair the damage.
  4. A person or company causing damage by using a GMO should not be able to avoid liability because a consent (permit) has been given to use it.
    • For most GMOs that are given a consent, the risk assessment is Europe-wide and cannot account for local environments that may prove to be sensitive to harm.
    • Because a qualified majority voting system is used to approve GM organisms in Europe, it is also possible that the UK may oppose a GMO consent on environmental grounds but be outvoted by other countries and have to accept it. If this happened and environmental harm arose, even though there were concerns about safety in the UK, the person using the GMO could argue that they had a permit and so should not be liable.
    • If you live in Wales, support the Assembly's proposal not to have the permit defense. If you live elsewhere, argue that the Welsh proposals should be extended to England and Northern Ireland.
  5. Streams and ponds are important parts of ecosystems and should be included within environmental liability laws.
  6. Damage to soil that causes environmental harm, not only harm to human health, should be included.

Where to send your response

In England, your responses should be sent by 16th February 2007 via e-mail to: eld@defra.gsi.gov.uk. Or by post to: 
ELD Consultation
Environmental Liability Branch
Environmental Regulation Policy Division
Zone 4/A1
Ashdown House
123 Victoria Street
London SWIE 6DE

In Wales responses should be sent by 16th February 2007 via e-mail to: waste@wales.gsi.gov.uk. Or by post to:
Waste Policy Branch
Welsh Assembly Government
ELD Consultation
First Floor, Room: 1-002
Cardiff CF10 3NQ 

In Scotland, reply by 23rd March 2007 by e-mail to eld.consultation@scotland.gsi.gov.uk or by mail to:

International Environmental Issues Team
Environmental Futures
Environment Group
Scottish Executive
Victoria Quay
Telephone: 0131-244-7814
Fax: 0131-244-0195

Get your MP involved

Please also write to your MP and ask them to get active on the issue. There are two Early Day Motions they can sign and they can call for all SSSIs in their constituency to be given protection.

The two Early Day Motions (both of which have cross-party support) you can ask your MP to sign are:
That this House notes the special nature of the potential risks arising from the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and limited knowledge of their long-term environmental impacts; and calls on the Government to change its proposals for the implementation of the Environmental Liability Directive which is intended to protect biodiversity, land and water from environmental harm that may arise from the use of GMOs to ensure that there are no defences from strict liability for harm arising from the use of GMOs.

That this House notes the importance of protecting England's 4,113 sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs) and 450 Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) species; calls upon the Government to change its proposal for implementation of the Environment Liability Directive which was intended to protect biodiversity, land and water from environmental harm that may arise from the use of genetically modified organisms, waste disposal or the discharge of pollutants to air and water but which currently excludes 3,000 SSSIs and 375 BAP species; and further calls on the Government to ensure equal protection for all of England's precious wildlife.

Regional meetings

DEFRA is also arranging a series of regional meetings where you can give your views in person. The dates and venues are listed below. To register and get more information, e-mail eld@defra.gsi.gov.uk  or contact:

Mehdi Kurrimbux, Environmental Liability Branch
Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Zone 4/A1, Ashdown House
123 Victoria Street
London, SW1E 6DE
Tel:  0207 082 8987
E-Mail: mehdi.kurrimbux@defra.gsi.gov.uk

London:  Monday 8th Jan 13:00- Defra Office

Portsmouth: Tuesday 9th Jan 09:30  - Holiday Inn   

Plymouth: Wednesday 10th Jan 09:00 - Astor Hotel      

Cardiff: Thursday 11th Jan 09:00  - Macdonald Holland House     

Belfast: Monday 15th Jan 09:00  - No venue set at this stage     

Newcastle: Tuesday 16th Jan 09:00  - Government Office for the North East     

York: Tuesday 16th Jan 14:30  - The Park Inn     

Manchester: Wednesday 17th Jan 12:00  - Britannia Hotel     

Birmingham: Thursday 18th Jan 09:00 - Birmingham Hippodrome     

Cambridge: Friday 19th Jan or Tuesday 23rd Jan 12:00  New Hall - University of Cambridge or Government Office for the East


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