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News: Major accident directive reviewed

European legislation dealing with the control of major industrial accidents is due to be updated following a recent review by the European Commission (EC). Seveso II provides a framework for assessing the risks associated with using and storing dangerous substances. Although the review concluded that no wholesale changes are required, the proposed replacement directive has already been dubbed Seveso III.

Since the adoption of the original Seveso directive in 1982, in response to an incident at a chemical plant in Seveso, Northern Italy, the directive and its replacement Seveso II (Directive 96/82/EC) have been periodically updated. The trigger, in each case, has been a major accident, including massive pollution of the Rhine with fire-fighting water in 1986 and an explosion at a fireworks depot in Enschede, Netherlands, in 2000. The current proposals for revision represent the first update not related to a major accident.

Changes to the directive are already required to take into account amendments, in 2008, to European legislation on the classification, labelling and packaging of dangerous substances – the CLP regulations. The CLP regulations were amended to bring them in line with the United Nations classification system and as a consequence, Annex 1 of the Seveso II directive, which defines dangerous substances and their qualifying quantities, needs to be updated. The EC took the necessary revisions as an opportunity to conduct a wider study of the directive and its application in the member states, and to establish whether further modifications were required.

The study highlights some important implications of the changes to Annex 1. In Seveso II, dangerous substances were simply listed alongside threshold amounts, above which certain provisions of the directive would be implemented. The revised version is more specific – it now includes health hazards, with subsections covering acute toxicities and variations due to different exposure routes. There is also a detailed section on “Physical hazards”, featuring definitions for explosives, flammable gases and aerosols, and further sections covering environmental and other hazards. Practically, these extra details mean that some hazards that were previously ignored may now be given greater consideration and vice versa.

In the UK, the Seveso II directive is implemented through the Control of Major Accident Hazards (COMAH) regulations. Under COMAH, sites are classified by tiers according to their hazard status. The changes to Annex 1 may lead to a shift in COMAH classification. For instance, some sites labelled low tier may now gain top tier status, or fall outside of the scheme altogether. However, it is expected that for most sites already covered by COMAH there would be little change.

Sections on risk assessment will need to be updated to take into account the more detailed definitions of hazards. In addition, amendments to the directive will induce changes in other legislation, including regulations governing land use planning. Aside from the changes to Annex 1, however, the review found major alterations were not needed. The Commission also recommended that any administrative burdens on enterprises subject to the directive be kept to a minimum. The Seveso directive is already included in the European Commission's Action Programme for Reducing Administrative Burdens. Web-based applications have been proposed as a way of reducing unnecessary time and money spent on collecting and providing information – for example, in notifying the competent authority of a change in the amount of a dangerous substance handled by a company.

Changes to the directive will start to be negotiated in early 2012 with implementation due by 1st June 2015 at the latest. The proposed revisions have been made public and analysis of the results from an impact assessment of the changes is ongoing.

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