Asbestos Developments in Brussels
Through persuasion and punishment European institutions are seeking to improve environmental and occupational protections with respect to asbestos. In the monthly European Commissions listings of Infringement Decisions released on September 23, 2021, it was noted that reasoned opinions had been sent to Slovenia and Spain which had set the clock ticking. Should these two Member States fail to transpose into national law European Parliament Directive 2014/52/EU on impact evaluations of public and private projects on the environment within two months, legal action before the Court of Justice of the European Union could follow.1 If the defendants were to be found guilty, financial sanctions are a distinct possibility. The text on the EU Commissions website about this development contained scant details about the particularities of the infringements committed except to say that:
Spain has not correctly reflected the Directive in its national legislation, as Spanish law does not require an impact assessment for certain projects with potentially significant environmental effects. This is the case in particular for installations for the extraction, processing and transformation of asbestos. Spain has also established various exclusion thresholds' that may exclude projects from the procedure regardless of their likely significant environmental effects. The Commission is therefore sending reasoned opinions to Slovenia and Spain. Both Member States now have two months to remedy the situation, otherwise, the Commission may decide to refer them to the Court of Justice of the European Union.
A request made on September 26, 2021 to the Commissions press office for additional information was unfruitful, with a reply from Daniela Storcheva, Press Officer for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, which said: We have nothing more to add. Despite the lack of detail, the European Commissions denunciations of Spains failure to comply with EU law was reported in the Spanish media.2
Meanwhile at a virtual meeting held on September 27, 2021, Members of the European Parliaments Committee on Employment and Social Affairs (EMPL) considered a legislative report on Protecting Workers from Asbestos which linked the safe removal of installed asbestos to financial mechanisms that the EU was promoting, such as the Next Generation EU and the multiannual financial framework; the text also examined strategies for minimizing the occupational asbestos hazard, supporting the injured and promoting energy efficiency.
Commenting on the importance of the Committees debate, General Secretary of the European Federation of Building and Woodworkers (EFBWW) Tom Deleu said that the current EU Occupational Exposure Limit (OEL) for asbestos of 100,000 fibres/m3 (0.1 fibres/cm3) was far outdated and did not protect construction workers, miners, and workers in cleaning or waste disposal, who are regularly exposed to asbestos.3 Fortunately, the MEPs agreed and, by a large majority,4 voted to lower the OEL to 1000 fibers/m3 (0.001f/cm3).5
In addition, the MEPs expressed approval for a strategy for the removal of all asbestos from Member States; this could be best served by a variety of measures including the establishment of national asbestos removal programs and public asbestos registries, the provision of subsidies to homeowners and tighter provisions to ensure safe disposal of asbestos waste. Considering that 80% of the occupational cancers suffered by Europeans were caused by exposures to asbestos, measures to expedite the recognition of asbestos-related diseases and the dispensation of compensation were also adopted.6
The safe removal of asbestos from old buildings was an urgent task that fed into the Commissions plans to renovate 35 million buildings by 2030, the Parliamentarians were told. Bearing in mind that the eradication of asbestos from the built environment could take some while, obligatory screening of buildings before sale or rent and the introduction of asbestos certificates for buildings constructed before 2005 should be implemented via legislation.7
The green light from the EMPL Committee represents a small hurdle on the road to much-needed policy changes. One can but hope that these life-saving proposals find favor when they are submitted to a vote at the European Parliament.8 In the meantime, the European Commission must continue to monitor the actions of Member States so that those not in compliance with EU law are exposed and punished. Without enforcement and the fear of retaliation, directives and guidelines are just pieces of paper or, in 2021, bytes of computer memory.
October 1, 2021
1 DIRECTIVE 2014/52/EU OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL of 16 April 2014 amending Directive 2011/92/EU on the assessment of the effects of certain public and private projects on the environment.
2 Bruselas urge a España a enmendar su ley de impacto medioambiental o elevará el caso a la Justicia europea [Brussels urges Spain to amend its environmental impact law or it will submit the case to the European Judiciary]. September 23, 2021.
3 EFBWW. On asbestos there is no right or left! Vote for Zero Cancer! Vote for 1000 fibers/m3. September 22, 2021.
4 The vote was 47 in favour and 7 abstentions.
5 EFBWW. EMPL MEPS ready to protect workers from asbestos! Now it is time for the EP and EC to do the same! September 27, 2021.
6 According to a presentation by Dr. Jukka Takala to the 2021 virtual Asian Ban Asbestos Meeting on September 27, 2021, 90,730 people in the EU died from occupational asbestos-related diseases in 2019.
7 EU should step up protection of workers from asbestos. September 27, 2021.
8 EFBWW. On asbestos there is no right or left! Vote for Zero Cancer! Vote for 1000 fibers/m3. September 22, 2021.