Water quality

Water is one of our most precious natural resources. It is vital for our survival and livelihood, our environment, our wildlife and our economy.

Water is one of our most precious natural resources. It is vital for our survival and livelihood, our environment, our wildlife and our economy.

Governments and authorities are now beginning to slowly acknowledge that Europe’s water environment is in an unacceptable state. Despite some progress made in the past decades, the majority of rivers, lakes and coastal waters have been degraded to the point where they cannot sustain functioning ecosystems or their vital services. Ecosystems lack the space and water volume to function properly. Groundwater levels continue to fall and pollution levels remain high.

European laws to protect water

European laws have been instrumental in working to improve the ecological and chemical status of surface water. However, the widespread use of exemptions and the possibility given to Member States to postpone measures until 2027 have undermined required actions. Relevant laws include the The Water Framework Directive (2000/50/EC) (“WFD”) and the The Directive on Environmental Quality Standards (2008/105/EC), amended by The Environmental Quality Standards (in the field of water policy) Directive (“EQS-D”)(2013/39/EU)

The following major challenges remain:

  • Achieving the phase-out objective of the first set of 25 priority hazardous substances (PHS) and progressive reduction of concentration of eight further priority substances (PS) to reach good chemical status of surface waters;
  • Achieving the phase-out objective of the second set of 21 PHS and progressive reduction of concentration of 24 PS to reach good chemical status of surface waters;

Following the revision of the EQS, maximum allowable concentration (MAC) limits must be met for the first set of PS before 22 December 2021.

The newly identified 12 PS (including six PHS) and their associated MAC limits need to be met by 22 December 2027 at the latest. Until that date actions must be taken to prevent deterioration in the chemical status of surface water bodies in relation to those substances. A programme of measures shall be made fully operational as soon as possible and not later than 22 December 2024.

All of these pollutants are to be tackled through the Industrial Emissions Directive (IED) and associated BREFs. An overview of IED relevant pollutants are provided below.

For more information on water-related activities by the EEB, please visit: The water page on the EEB website.

Industrial emissions regulated by the IED / BREFs

Industrial installations regulated by the IED emit large amount of pollutants to water, either directly if discharged in surface water after treatment, or indirectly if waste water streams are redirected to a waste water treatment plant offsite – so-called ‘indirect discharges’. Indirect pollution also comes from the deposition of air pollutants into water.

Water quality also suffers because of industrial water consumption as part of the production process. Good ecological status of surface water can also be affected due to temperature increase (e.g. cooling for industrial activities such as thermal combustion plants) or physical alterations of the biota due to infrastructure.

The reported emissions of 91 water pollutants from IED-related activities are publicly available in The EU Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (E-PRTR), provided the reporting thresholds are met. This website’s monitoring page provides further information. 

Which industrial sources cause the most water pollution?

Results on water emission loads reported under the E-PRTR for the IED activities should be handled with care. First, high pollutants-specific thresholds apply at installation level for various hazardous pollutants which allow under-reporting by the polluters. For example, if an installation released slightly less than 5kg over a year of certain metals (e.g. Arsenic, Cadmium) less than 20kg (e.g. Nickel, Lead) and less than 50 kg (Chromium, Copper), the operator may officially report “0” emissions, which is clearly not accurate. Secondly, indirect discharge of polluted waste water from industrial sites are not considered as “releases” if the contaminated waste water is subsequently treated by a waste water treatment plant off-site. The source polluter does not have to report its share of pollution caused and may remain anonymous. This shortcoming is also recognised in the AMEC Report: “Contribution of Industry to Pollutant Emissions to Air and Water”, (AMEC et al., see page vii).

In the case of indirect discharge the pollutant load is to be reported by the Waste Water Treatment plant, which may be an independently operated industrial waste water treatment plant, listed in entry number 5(g) of the EPRTR. If multiple industrial waste water streams are mixed from various IED activities, it is not possible to trace the origin of the individual pollutants.

In most cases the treatment of pollutants is shifted to the urban waste water treatment plants (UWWTP) listed in entry number 5(f) of the E-PRTR, which also explains a high share of the pollutants reported in the E-PRTR. Council Directive 91/271/EEC, concerning urban waste water treatment, only provides for a concentration limit between 25mg/l and 60mg/lorminimum percentage of pollutant reduction on three parameters: Biochemical oxygen demand or Total organic carbon, Chemical Oxygen Demand and total suspended solids. The directive does not require the application of pollution prevention or control measures in accordance with the recognised Best Available Techniques (BAT). No specific measures must be taken to prevent discharge of Priority Hazardous Substances. Despite these limited parameters, a large number of UWWTP are operating in breach of these basic requirements, in particular the minimum 75% load reduction of total nitrogen and phosphorous (see more information in the WISE database).

This practice means a negation of the “pollution prevention at source” principle established by the IED and the EU Treaties. Further the “polluter pays principle” is not applied if additional pollutant loads have to be handled by Urban Waste Water Treatment Plants owned by the public, meaning additional costs for removing these pollutants at end of pipe in order to ensure compliance with the WFD. See the EU Court of Auditors report on Danube, no 25 /2015.

Pollutants released to water from IED installations are very sector-specific or linked to specific manufacturing processes (e.g. 1,2-dichloroethane, pentachlorobezene are almost exclusively released from the production of basic organic chemicals and HCBD from plastics production) or sectors (e.g. production of non ferrous crude metals responsible for largest share of Benzo(g, h, i) perylene, Antracene and nutrient pollution from manure / fertiliser application in agriculture). Overall, the main responsible sectors for total releases of hazardous pollutants are the Chemical Sector which should be tackled by the Common Waste Water Treatment Plants BREF, Large Combustion Plants BREF, Refineries BREF and (non) ferrous metals and Iron and Steel plants BREF.

What are the BREFs supposed to tackle?

The IED sets a minimal list of relevant groups of water pollutants which need to be addressed in the permit (in particular Article 14 and 15 of the IED). This also explicitly includes all of the 45 priority substances and priority hazardous substances listed under the Water Framework Directive, as per point 13 (water) of Annex II of the IED.

The IED also refers to any “substances and mixtures which have proved to possess carcinogenic or mutagenic properties which may affect in or via the aquatic environment”, “persistent hydrocarbons and persistent and bio-accumulable organic toxic substances”, cyanides, metals and compounds, biocides and pesticides, organohalogens etc.

It is therefore an open non-exhaustive list of pollutant groups, we consider this refers to the relevant substances that meet any of the properties of a Substance of Very High Concern (SVHC) as per Article 57 of the REACH Regulation. Read more about [Pollutants of Concern here].

One of the basic BAT criteria is to use “less hazardous substances” (point 2 of Annex III) and the “need to prevent or reduce to a minimum the overall impact of the emissions on the environment and the risks to it”. The other general principle of the basic obligations laid upon the operator is that “all the appropriate preventive measures are taken against pollution” (IED Article 11).

Groundwater is to be protected (Article 14(1) b of the IED). Article 6, of Directive 2006/118/EC on the protection of groundwater against pollution and deterioration, explicitly requires all possible measures to be taken to prevent the entry of hazardous substances listed in BREFs into groundwater. It refers to “established best practice, including Best Environmental Practice and Best Available Techniques specified in the relevant Community legislation.”

The BREF review rules explicitly refer to the requirements to address water consumption and the releases of pollutants to any body of water.

Water consumption

Only a few BREFs effectively set clear BAT conclusions (in the form of BATAE(P)L)) on water consumption. This is a significant gap in nearly all the revised BREFs.


BAT conclusions on Cement and Lime: Typically about 100-600 litres of water are required per tonne of clinker produced. A further 5m³/h is used for certain clinker cooling activities. For limestone washing the amounts are reported in the order of 0.5-2m³ / tonne of limestone washed. For the latter about 15% is lost and needs to be replaced. Yet no BAT conclusions are set in order to reduce water consumption.

BAT conclusions for Refineries: A typical water consumption rate of 0.2-25m³ / tonne of feedstock refined is reported, going up to 100m/t for cooling purposes. For some refineries the yearly consumption exceeds 11Mm³/year (highest reported is 842.02Mm³/year). Six out of the 35 sites reporting are using 100% freshwater (potable water), corresponding to 226,180 – 7,194,096 m³/year. Yet no BAT conclusions are set in order to reduce water consumption.

BAT conclusions for Large Combustion plants (revision ongoing)LCPs consume a very large amount of water for their cooling towers. An EWEA report estimates that the average water consumption of coal power plants is 1.9m³/MWh and gas 0.7m³/MWh, which totalled 2.07 bn/m³ in 2011, equivalent to average annual household waster use of 41 million EU citizens, see EWEA’s 2014 Report: “Saving water with wind energy” (page 10-11). Initially a few general BAT conclusions to reduce water consumption were proposed, such as avoiding the use of potable water, internal water recycling and segregation/re-use of water streams. Yet the final draft of the new BAT conclusions do not provide clear maximum consumption levels for water but set out vague water recycling objectives with applicability constraints where the:“degree of recycling is limited by the quality requirements of the recipient water stream and the water balance of the plant”.

See the ongoing [EEB Water-Thermal Energy Nexus Project].

BAT Conclusions with minimum performance levels on water reuse is only effective if linked to water use efficiency.

Emissions to Water

It is important to ensure consistency with relevant Environmental Quality Standards (EQS) through the BREF BAT conclusions. The IED is explicit in requiring permit writers to ensure that relevant Environment Quality Standards are met (Article 18).

The consistency is not achieved to prevention pollution at source for all the relevant pollutants. As an illustration, the chemical industry emits a large share of priority substances (subject to emission reduction and concentration limits) and priority hazardous substance (subject to phase out obligation) for which reductions must be achieved in surface water at the latest by 2027. Yet not all of these pollutants, reported in the E-PRTR as being emitted every year in large amounts, are effectively tackled.

A good illustration is the recently adopted BAT Conclusions for the Common Waste Water Treatment in chemical industries BREF (the ‘CWW BREF‘). It sets out the general obligation to pre-treat waste water to “reduce emissions” of pollutants that cannot be dealt with during final waste water treatment but adapts (increases) the levels where the emissions leave the installation in accordance to higher input pollution.

PollutantExisting 2003 BREF (mg/l)New draft BAT conclusions
MAC limit WFD / UWWTComment      
TSS20 (monthly)35 (yearly)35 (UWWT)Weakening, with threshold 3.5t/yr and derogation **
COD250 (daily)100 /300 (yearly)125 (UWWT)With threshold 10t/yr and derogation methylcellulose production
TOC33/100With thresholds 3,3t/year, derogation methylcellulose production
Total P1,5 (daily)3 (yearly)2 (UWWT)Weakening, threshold 300kg/yr
AOX (mg/l)0.16- 1.71.0 (yearly)a bit stricter then in 2003 but derogations *
Metals / other listed hazardous substance
Pollutant Existing 2003 BREF µg/lNew draft BAT conclusions µg/lµg/l
(highest value)
Cd0.02-0.833 (yearly)None!≤ 0,45 (Cl 1)
1,5 (Cl 5)
Missing PHS
None!1,4Missing PHS
Cr30 (yearly)25 (yearly)n/aa bit stricter then in 2003. With thresholds 2.5t/year, loads of derogations: ** + ***
Cu60 (yearly)50 (yearly)n/aa bit stricter then in 2003 With thresholds 5kg/year, loads of derogations: ** + *
DEHPNone!1,3Missing PHS
DichloroethaneNone!10Missing PS
DichloromethaneNone!20Missing PS
HBCDNone!0,6Missing PHS
HBCDDNone!0,0008-0,5Missing PHS
Ni10-80 (yearly)5-50 (yearly)34stricter then in 2003
With thresholds 5kg/year, derogation
NonylphenolNone!2Missing PHS
PAHNone!Up to 0,027Missing PHS
PentaChloroBenzeneNone!Up to 0,007Missing PHS
TCBNone!0,4Missing PS
Zn4-174(yearly)20-300 (yearly)n/aWeakening, with thresholds 5kg/year, loads of derogations:  production viscose fibre and

PS: Priority Substance in accordance to Annex II of EQS Directive
PHS: Priority Hazardous Substance in accordance to Annex II of EQS Directive
MAC: maximum allowable concentration expressed in µg/l in accordance to Annex II of EQS Directive

Derogations list:

production of iodinated X ray contrast agent, propylene oxide, epichlorohydrin
production inorganic heavy metals, processing of large volume of solid inorganic raw materials that are contaminated with metals e.g. soda ash Solvay process, titanium dioxide
* production chromium organic compounds production
** production with copper-organic compounds or production of vinyl chloride monomer/ethylene dichloride via the oxychlorination process

Techniques for the prevention/reduction of water pollution and re-use efficiency

Emissions to water can be prevented or reduced with a common set of techniques available to all IED sectors. However, the effectiveness of abatement varies to a very large extent depending on the different options taken by the operator (either alone or in combination).

The BAT-AELs on water emissions are largely derived from currently observed performance levels of existing abatement equipment used by existing treatment installations, rather than thetechnically achievable levels of these abatement techniques, either applied alone or in combination with other techniques. The main reasons for low ambition levels are driven by considerations about the cost for the operators, in rare cases because of environmental cross-media impacts and in even rarer cases due to technical reasons.

The BREFs are not supposed to constitute a sales catalogue for various techniques but should conclude on what would be BAT performance levels due to the “best” –meaning most effective- technique or combination of technique(s) for delivering the best environmental outcome, in this case not negatively affecting the achievement of the good chemical / ecological status of surface water and the no deterioration principle of groundwater.

For these reasons any dilution limits (maximum concentration) for any PHS, if emitted by the installation irrespective of the amount, is not sufficient if the end objective is cessation (phase out). Techniques which prevent any emissions (“0” discharge) or ensure meeting “detection limits” for any PHS or other substances with PBT or other SVHC properties at the discharge point can be considered as BAT.

The focus of the EEB is therefore the pro-active substitution of hazardous substances and the implementation of Green Chemistry principles upstream.

Since techniques do not only involve technology, other measures should be implemented to support the polluter pays principle i.e. to deter water consumption and pollution. As highlighted in the 2016 Court of Auditors report on water quality in the Danube river basin, water pollution charges vary significantly from one Member State to another and none of the river management plans assessed provide for deterring economic instruments.

Another important missing element is BAT Conclusions which consistently set minimum performance levels on water reuse or water use efficiency, in line with circular economy objectives.

Your contribution…

In the view of the EEB, BAT Conclusions, in particular BAT-AEL ranges for water emissions or water consumption, should be set on outcome focussed (environmental performance) considerations only, irrespective of the technique(s) used. We would therefore support any technique which would be the most effective in delivering pollution prevention, in particular for pollutants which meet the properties of Substances of Very High Concern (SVHC) under Article 57 of REACH and are used / produced by the industrial activity in question. The phase out goal for the PHS and compliance with the maximum allowable concentrations (MAC) as well as emissions reductions for PS regulated under the WFD should be achieved at the fence of the industrial installation, where that substance is relevant to the water pathway. Relevant means that this substance is likely / has the potential to be used on the site(s) in question and may end up in the waste water.

All the relevant PS / PHS according to the EQS Directive amended by Directive 2013/39/EU should be monitored continuously irrespective of any threshold, in particular if the treatment occurs off-site unless a 0 emission discharge is guaranteed. In case of PHS, all possible upstream prevention techniques should be taken by the polluter at source, since emission reduction (small concentrations of pollution) is not an option in the long run. We cannot accept that “state of the art” requirements, i.e. BAT conclusions, are ignoring – or running counter to – the fulfilment of other environmental protection legislation, rather these should be coherent in achieving the objectives.

Further, the EEB endeavours that any SVHC listed on The REACH candidate list of substances of very high concern is monitored periodically, if that substance is used (irrespective of whether as intermediate or not) on the site upstream / has been detected in the treatment of waste water. The operator of an installation using any of the above mentioned substances should report annually on its website the exact amount of substances used and provide a justification that the substance is not emitted into the environment.

Considering recent experience in BREF reviews, we would seek to get the following information:

  • Examples of application of the Whole Effluent Assessments or other methods to deal with cocktail effects in the water receiving body;
  • Data on emission ranges / techniques achieving maximum allowable concentration (MAC) values for the same unit as referred to in the relevant columns of the receiving water (columns 4, or 5, or 6) according to Annex II of Directive 2013/39/EU for the Priority Substances and Priority Hazardous Substances;
  • Techniques which achieve a “0 liquid discharge” / or “detection limit” of any PHS identified in Annex II of Directive 2013/39/EU or the “watchlist”;
  • Data on emissions to water achieved which are below / at the lower end of the BAT-AEL specified in BAT conclusions that have been recently adopted or are currently under review;
  • Examples and initiatives such as “Green Chemistry” which improve the impact on water protection from IED activities;
  • Examples of water saving / re-use (circular economy).

Please provide information to BATWATER@eeb.org or submit information anonymously via the contact page.

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