Industrialisation has caused significant pollution across Europe, and a key challenge today is the remediation of pollutants that have accumulated in the sediments of rivers and coastal areas.
Last month, EU and national representatives met in Brussels with experts and scientists to discuss the issues related to the management of contaminated sediments. This article provides an overview of the main points discussed and offers recommendations for further action.
Regarding technical challenges, solutions are widely available and consolidated for the treatment of contaminated waters and soils. However, solutions for reclaiming sediments require further research and development.
Therefore, experts and policymakers agree on the importance of sustaining EU funding in this field, and to keep providing dedicated opportunities for the exchange of know-how and best practices across Member States. Four LIFE projects with relevant research illustrated their findings and recommendations.
Regarding policy challenges, the current legal frameworks are fragmented across the EU, and Member States address the challenges with diverging approaches. In some Member States, policy has been driven by the necessities of sector-specific interventions such as dredging and capping for navigation and ports. However, experts agree that this approach is expensive and cannot be applied everywhere, and that in-situ bioremediation solutions must be further developed and regulated by legislation.
National representatives discussed the opportunity of developing sediment-specific Environmental Quality Standards to streamline interventions in Member States. However, a degree of flexibility must be guaranteed to address the site-specific conditions – the area final destination, specific pollutants, financial aspects – that cannot be set in European legislation.
Looking ahead, defining EQS for sediments across the EU could allow Member States to have a common benchmarking whilst also addressing the sources of pollutants and successive remediation of sediments where needed.
On February 9, 2023, the partners of LIFE Sedremed organised a key divulgation event on the sidelines of their first annual meeting. The divulgation event focused on two thematic pillars of sediment management:
- Technological solutions and EU funding for sediment remediation and sustainable management;
- Policy barriers and best-practices in Member States for management of contaminated sediments.
The event format included an expert roundtable, and the LIFE Sedremed partners engaged with Belgian and European experts. The event took place at the premises of Political Intelligence (PI) in Brussels.
PI Managing Director Agathe van de Plassche started the meeting with a welcome message and presented their public affairs activities.
Nisida Environment’s CEO Raffaele Vaccaro introduced all the participants and outlined the programme of the session.
Technological solutions and EU funding for sediment remediation and sustainable management
An overview of the project’s key activities was provided by Dr Donatella De Pascale, LIFE Sedremed coordinator and Director of the Eco-sustainable Marine Biotechnologies of the Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn (SZN).
This overview made it clear how the actions of the project fit within the complex regulatory framework of contaminated sediment management. It also highlighted the key objective of the remediation plan in Bagnoli Bay, to restore the Good Environmental Status (GES) of the coastal area with the objective to make it possible for humans to swim in the waters without risks and avoid bio-accumulation in the food-chain.
This represents a huge challenge as coastal contaminated sediment management is typically foreseen in relation to dredging intervention in harbour areas and not to restore the original ecological status of the waters.
The event continued with a brief description of LIFE Sedremed technological approach to decontaminate sediments in situ with the presentation of Idrabel (BE) and Ekogrid (FI). The two partners illustrated how the project will enable the degradation of organic contaminants and the fixation/stabilisation of heavy metals within sediments.
Two representatives of the LIFE Sure project, Mr Johan Persson (Kalmar Municipality, SE) and Mr Frank Schmieder (Linnaeus University, SE), were invited to share and identify solutions for the management of contaminated sediments. Their participation was important because the LIFE Sure project developed a pilot dredging machine able to minimise the resuspension of sediment particles during the removal process. This is a key aspect to ensure environmental safety in projects where contaminated sediment removal is necessary.
Another significant contribution consisted in their experience in developing ex situ treatments to enable the reuse of the dredged sediment in the circular economy through for example reuse as growing media for agriculture or as constructing material in concrete blocks.
LIFE Sure’s experience on the reuse of dredged sediments also raised an important discussion point on the application of the circular economy in sediment management. Currently, the large-scale implementation of End-Of-Waste criteria for sediments is incomplete and the lack of clarity in EU policy concerning this by-product hinders their reuse.
The first part of the event ended with a presentation from Dr. Solon Mias, Project Officer, at CINEA (European Climate Infrastructure and Environment Executive Agency) who presented the funding opportunities of the LIFE Programme for new projects on sediment management and restoration of coastal environmental status. In particular, attention was given to the opportunities provided by Integrated projects, that can have budgets over 10 million euros (much larger than traditional projects as LIFE Sedremed) and represent a solution to tackle the policy and technological barrier issues for the management of contaminated sediments across Member States and sea-basins with different implementation sites.
The event also saw the presentation of the LIFE Belini integrated project and LIFE Narmena which focuses on restoring water quality by developing sediment and soil remediation within river basin management plans.
Policy barriers and best-practices in Member States for management of contaminated sediments
The roundtable then moved on to another important aspect of sediment management: the legislation that regulates it both at the European and national levels.
The shared conclusion by all the experts present is that the situation is complex, with several pieces of EU legislation involved (7 in total), and a high degree of flexibility accorded to Member States in the implementation process.
The experts discussed whether it is more suitable to seek an EU-wide intervention in sediment management or to further develop national policies in a regional cooperation framework.
Ms Silvia Bartolini – Head of Unit at DG Environment and responsible for the implementation of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) – confirmed the absence of EU-wide standards (quality thresholds) for priority substances in sediments in the Environment Quality Status Directive (EQSD). However, she reminded that the directive allows Member States to set these standards at the national level.
Similarly, the MSFD, building on the EQSD benchmark, indicates that Member States shall establish concentration limits (also called threshold values under the MSFD) for sediments “through regional or subregional cooperation” to allow their application in the Member States’ marine waters.
Both the Water Framework Directive (WFD) and MSFD, require that pollution should be prevented at source and that the contaminated matrixes should be restored, with the objective of reaching the Good Ecological/Environmental Status (GES) and limiting exposure to contaminants.
However, the EU legislation, in addition to not providing sediment-specific EQS, does not include the so-called “intervention thresholds” that would indicate directly to Member States when and how to intervene. The MSFD requires Member States to monitor contamination levels in all matrices in all its marine waters but asks Member States to put in place specific measures only when threshold values are exceeded.
Ms Bartolini confirmed that there are no specific plans to tackle more specifically sediments in any future review of the MSFD, adding that in a Zero Pollution logic, this should no longer be necessary, since all pollution would be tackled at source. However, she recognized that: “the legal context is quite complex and that it would be important to get a better understanding of the other environmental impacts of restoration intervention (energy demand, waste transport, air pollution, climate change, remobilisation of contaminants) and the economic aspects of such interventions”.
In regards to the MSFD, Ms Bartolini concluded by acknowledging that, while regional cooperation can be an excellent tool for policy coordination at sea-basin level, there is a high disparity between the activities of HELCOM (Baltic sea) and OSPAR (North sea) compared with the Barcelona Convention (Mediterranean sea) where, given the presence of several non-EU countries, “it could be very difficult to set regionally-coordinated threshold values and Member States may need to coordinate among themselves, with support from the Commission, in order to define high levels of protection under the MSFD.”
Following Ms Bartolini’s intervention the floor was given to the Italian Ministry of Environment and Energy Security represented by Eng. Leo Mezzina.
This presentation illustrated the Italian legislative approach, highlighting that in 2021 a new article was included in the Italian Environmental Act, indicating the necessity for the definition of intervention values for sediments. However, these thresholds, which should be implemented in a dedicated annex, are still missing.
Italy has derived some EQS for sediments in a dedicated decree (D.lgs 172/2015) but the list of substances is incomplete, and again EQS exceedance triggers the necessity for monitoring and only indirectly advises restoration intervention.
Eng. Mezzina specified that, “there is ongoing work to establish criteria for remediation and safety measures for the management of contaminated sediments and restoration of marine habitats” in order to have clear guidelines also when dredging is not strictly needed. Italy will then develop a process to “derive these thresholds also on a site-specific level in order to take into account final uses of the areas and take into consideration the economic and social impacts of the restoration intervention”.
In his conclusion, Eng Mezzina welcomed “a European intervention that could aim at streamlining and clarifying on a European and, where needed, on a regional scale, the procedures for classification and management of sediments”.
The discussion continued with the intervention by Invitalia, the agency managing the decontamination process in Bagnoli and partner of LIFE Sedremed, represented by Eng. Edoardo Stacul Robortella, Head of the Environmental Unit. It started by confirming the complexity of the process and the extremely high costs incurred in implementing sediment decontamination plans.
The decontamination project in Bagnoli is “based on the DMs 172 and 173/2016 previously described and, as such, it foresees an intervention plan based on dredging, natural capping, artificial capping and constant monitoring”.
The main problem for Invitalia is that at the moment “national legislation on brownfields doesn’t provide for the application of site-specific risk analysis to the sediment compound” making it difficult to define remediation goals. Additionally, the absence of extensive sediment-specific EQS or intervention thresholds in Italian and EU legislation generates “complexity for the control bodies in the certification process” of the remediation intervention.
Lastly, in addition to the difficulty in finding “considerable economic resources” for the remediation intervention, the actual regulation governing bathing (one of the priority objectives for the Bagnoli coastline once it has been reclaimed) “does not include the analysis of chemical and toxicological parameters”. The actual regulation is thus inadequate to define rigorous scientific criteria in order to achieve the full use of the site in particular considering its application in a highly contaminated area of major national interest like Bagnoli.
The event was pursued with the intervention of Ann-Sofie Wernersson from the Swedish Geotechnical Institute.
She started by stating that Sweden has successfully “established sediment-specific EQS for 8 substances and that detailed guidance was published by the Swedish Agency on Water and Marine Environment to assess status classification according to Sediment, Water and Biota”. Also the MSFD Descriptor 8 was addressed by Swedish legislation and it foresees the application of “EQSs for substances of marine relevance, effects thresholds and contaminants trends (including persistent organic pollutants in biota)”.
Interestingly, and in contrast with the Italian approach, concerning dredging interventions the Swedish legislation forbids the deposition of the excavated material at sea, it is possible to apply for exemptions but decisions are taken by the court on a case-to-case basis.
Sweden has however developed a detailed process to define on a site-specific basis the details of intervention processes.
“The procedure includes an evaluation of sediment contamination, the establishment of general remediation goals (based on the final use of the area) and then the performance of the risk assessment. If unacceptable risks are not identified the intervention can go further with the different kinds of available management options. Then measurable and specific remediation goals are defined” this allows to proceed with the type of remediation chosen.
It is important to specify that in this process “sediment EQS exceedance does not automatically trigger remediation and is not necessarily used as remediation goal for the site, EQS tells us the status of the site but it doesn’t tell you what to do about it”. In this process it is also crucial, if remediation is foreseen, to also act at the source of pollution in order to avoid a recontamination risk.
Lastly, important work is ongoing to develop guidance on sediment risk assessment and will be published in 2023. In particular, it will focus on a crucial question: “should sediment be considered as a sink or as a source of pollutants?”
The final part of the event saw the intervention of the Finnish and Italian Permanent Representation to the EU and from the other participants to the expert roundtable.
Paula Perälä, Counsellor for Environment at the Finnish Permanent Representation to the EU, read a statement prepared by the experts of the Finnish ministry. The statement clearly explained the situation and started by recognising that “national legislation concerning contaminated sediments for monitoring, remediation and responsibilities is lacking” and added that at the moment “the monitoring realised is connected to dredging projects subjects to permit. The legislation determines the suitability of sediment for deposition but does not address the level of contamination or the need for the remediation”.
She added that “currently there are no thresholds or guidelines for assessing the contamination of sediments, environmental & health risk or the need for remediation”. It is thus “necessary to develop guidelines to establish uniform practices and to implement appropriate remediation measures”.
In view of the discussion concerning EU-level intervention, the statement specified that “instead of strict EU regulation the experts are tending to draw up national government strategies for management of contaminated sediments, so that different operating environments of Member States can be considered and appropriate measures could be chosen” and concluded stating that European “unification of risk assessment due to different circumstances of Member States is not an appreciated approach, but instead exchange of information and cooperation between Member States is of course very useful”.
The Italian Permanent Representation to the EU, represented by Sandro Nuccio and Francesco Bruno, respectively Climate and Environment counsellors , thanked the LIFE Sedremed team for organising the event that has been defined as “very important” and insisted on the fact that it will be crucial to spread it to port authorities as well since “they will be very interested in understanding not only what is the status of the legislation, but also how to manage the problem and what are the available solutions”.
Pieter De Boer, Senior Advisor at RijksWaterStaat (Netherlands national agency for infrastructures and waterways), intervened by specifying that the dutch approach is similar to the Swedish one, and underlined that it is crucial to respect “expert judgement because in every area the problems are very different and it thus might be difficult to have one solution for all” and that it is important to “put more effort in preventing contamination”.
To provide an input from Flanders (Belgium), Froukje Kujk from OVAM (Flanders Waste Management Agency) shared their legislative approach and confirmed that the methodology is similar to the one implemented in Sweden and the Netherlands. It specified that the position of OVAM is to “integrate sediments in other distinct policies and not to have a separate legislation because sediment is interconnected all the time with other matrixes such as soil and water”.
She added that sediments are included “in the Soil decree and sediment management plans are incorporated in River Management Plans, so there is enough attention for sediments there” she added that OVAM applies “trigger or intervention values and then performs the risk assessment based on the site-specific situation and the other factors that were presented by Sweden” in addition to taking into account as well “river banks and flooding areas since they are strongly interconnected with sediment contamination”.
The intervention was concluded by a brief presentation of the digital tools developed to support sound sediment management:
– Sediment Explorer digital platform where all the information that is relevant to map sediment quality across Flanders is gathered and readily accessible.
– Decision Support Tool for the remediation of polluted sediment that allows to simulate a specific situation and proposing the best remediation techniques.
The event was then concluded by several interventions from other participants, such as Nicolas Detiffe from SPW ARNE (Wallonia Environment Ministry), Alexander Van Van Heuverswyn from Jan De Nul (major dredging company), Pr. Patrick Gerin (UCLouvain) and Olivier Bastin (Vice-President of the Walloon Water Enterprises).
To conclude this article provides a brief summary of the current situation and a potential solution to the lack of uniformity in sediment management across the EU.
As stated by the experts, Member States require flexibility in analysing the site-specific situations and take into account factors – including area destination, specific pollutants, and financial expenses – that cannot be set in European legislation.
However, in view of the discussion, LIFE Sedremed partners consider as useful the continuation of the inter-institutional debate to evaluate the definition of sediment-specific Environmental Quality Standards (EQS) at the European level in order to align all Member States on a common benchmark for sediment classification and management. These pan-European EQS could be completed with EU targets for the prevention of sediment contamination that include pollution reduction plans specifically dedicated to sediments.
Then sea-basin cooperation and national legislation should provide the possibility of defining more stringent limits for EQS and including additional specific substances associated with more detailed management guidelines.
At the national level, EQS could be transformed into intervention thresholds and coupled with the application of site-specific risk analysis processes to define the details and objectives of intervention projects. The site-specific intervention definition and risk analysis processes would enable – as it is done already in Sweden, Netherlands and Flanders – to integrate the final use of the areas and the socio-economic aspects in the definition of the remediation plan. This legislative process could facilitate and promote the implementation of sediment decontamination and management plans using the BATNEEC approach (Best Available Techniques at Not Exceeding Excessive Cost).
In fact, the endeavour of remediating all contaminated sediments across the EU would not make economic rationale and would have limited social impacts, especially if efforts are not put in place to eliminate pollutant sources. However, remediating sediments where it is urgently needed and technically possible must be a priority for all EU countries.