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EC directives and legislation

Our science expertise supports our remit to ensure compliance with UK, European and international environmental legislation.

Our Environmental Assessment Unit (EAU) is responsible for the initiation, development and provision or dissemination of expert environmental modelling and data assessment (statistics and data trend information) systems. The EAU makes national reports of data for statutory returns to government and the EU.

Our environmental monitoring work supports:

  • European statutory monitoring;
  • assessment of the state of the environment;
  • monitoring to support licence conditions;
  • compliance monitoring;
  • pollution event monitoring;
  • development of innovative approaches to monitoring and assessment.

Directives by subject

Directives are agreed by the Council of the European Communities. Each Member State is then obliged to give effect to them on a statutory basis. In Scotland this may be done either through regulations made under the European Communities Act, or under any other empowering primary legislation, such as the Environment Act 1995. A further option is for the Scottish Government to issue an official direction to SEPA, or any other body, specifying action to be taken to meet the directive's terms.

There have been numerous environmental directives issued over the years, some of them highly technical, and they can only briefly be summarised. The titles used here are often abbreviated. Many of the directives have a requirement for periodical reporting to the European Commission.


  • Bathing Waters Directive
    Setting limits on indicator bacteria concentrations in seawater at 80 identified bathing waters in Scotland.
  • Shellfish Waters Directive
    Intended to protect coastal waters in order to support shellfish.
  • Dangerous Substances and its 'daughter' directives
    Theses set concentration limits in fresh and marine waters for trace metal and trace organic substances. The more hazardous and persistent are known as List I (eg hexachlorobutadiene, chloroform, cadmium) and the less serious are known as List II (eg zinc, lead).
  • Nitrates Directive
    Intended to control the pollution of controlled waters by excess use of fertilisers on agricultural land.
  • Freshwater Fisheries Directive
    Requiring compliance with certain standards to protect waters designated to support healthy fish populations.
  • Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive
    Setting out timetables for the implementation of appropriate treatment for sewage discharges which, for example, would require secondary treatment for all sizeable communities unless the discharge is to highly dispersive receiving waters. It also specifies quite demanding regulation in terms of sampling and analysis.
  • Directive on the Exchange of Information on the Quality of Surface Freshwaters
    This directive set up a monitoring programme, with annual reporting on a suite of parameters. In Scotland there are sites on the Rivers Spey, Almond and Leven.
  • Protection of Groundwater Directive
    Intended to prevent pollution of groundwater by List I and List II substances.

Following the second and third North Sea Conferences, the UK undertook to monitor for Red List substances (eg pentachlorophenol, mercury) and to reduce their release to the aqueous environment by prescribed amounts (generally 50%) over a 10-year period relative to a 1985 baseline. The Paris Convention (PARCOM) agreement requires annual loadings to be quantified from all sources, including rivers and discharges, for a range of parameters, including nitrogen and phosphorus.


  • Large Combustion Plants Directive
    Setting out a monitoring plan for all plants of greater than 50MW capacity and sets emission limits for sulphur dioxide (SO2) and oxides of nitrogen (NOx). It also demands a programme of improvements by year 2003 which will result in 60% and 30% reductions in SO2 and NOx over a 1980 baseline.
  • Sulphur Content Directive
    Limiting the concentration of sulphur compounds allowed in diesel fuel and gas oils in order to reduce air pollution.
  • Directive on Combating Air Pollution from Industrial Plants
    This directive enshrines the BATNEEC principle in relation to major industrial plants (eg asbestos, glass fibre manufacturers, steel plants, power stations) and the intention that pollution should be minimised for a specific range of substances (eg hydrocarbons, heavy metals, chlorine).
  • Municipal Waste-incineration Plants Directive
    Limiting values for gaseous temperatures and dust content and carbon monoxide concentrations in the emission.
  • Sulphur Dioxide and Suspended Particulates Directive
    Prescribes sampling and analysis methodologies and sets limit and guideline values for atmospheric concentrations. Similar requirements are made under the Nitrogen Dioxide Directive, the Ozone and the Lead Directives.
  • Petrol Vapour Recovery Directive
    Since 1999 all new and existing petrol filling stations have been required to minimise the vapours escaping during handling of vehicle fuels.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) also publishes guideline values for acceptable atmospheric concentrations of ozone, radon, lead, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, and particulates.


  • Framework Directive on Waste
    Imposing a requirement for competent authorities to be established for the planning, organisation, authorisation and supervision of waste disposal operations and also requiring them to prepare disposal plans. The amendment reinforces the need for waste minimisation, for disposal to be locally provided, and for adequate process control.
  • Hazardous Waste Directive
    Requiring the storage, treatment and disposal facilities only to be operated under a permit scheme. Such waste is defined in the directive and must be accompanied by appropriate documentation during transport. The directive insists that the disposal of such waste must be identified and recorded and separated from other wastes. Hazardous wastes are defined by a lengthy list including substances (e.g. pigments, resins, biocides, etc.), constituents (eg cadmium, phenols, ethers, etc) and properties (e.g. flammable, toxic, mutagenic, etc).
  • Disposal of Waste Oils Directive
    Requiring the registration of collectors, promotes regeneration, prohibits discharge to water and soil, and sets emission limits on disposal by combustion.

The Council legislation on the supervision and control of shipments within, into and out of the European Community requires Member States to ratify all transfrontier shipments of waste. The waste may only be moved when consent has been given by the competent authorities using a system of consignment notes, which are prescribed in detail. Waste must also be properly packed and labelled. The regulation also restricts the countries from which or to which waste can be transported. These countries must have suitable arrangements for the control of waste. Green, amber and red lists of wastes are provided in the regulation, each requiring different standards of control during movement. These lists only apply to wastes destined for recovery.


  • Directive on the Health Protection of the General Public against the Dangers of Ionising Radiation
    Setting thresholds above which Member States must implement systems of reporting and authorising the production, handling, use, holding, storage, transport and disposal of radioactive substances. Dose limits are set for a range of exposed workers and for the public, and some management practices are specified.
  • Supervision and Control of Shipments of Radioactive Waste and the Shipments of Radioactive Substances directives
    These stipulate standard documents which the competent authorities will use to seek authorisation, on behalf of an operator, for movement through and to other countries and with which they will compile records and inventories.


  • Directive on Freedom of Access to Information on the Environment
    This directive places a duty on regulatory authorities in general to make all information available to the public. There are relatively few exceptions listed.
  • Standardised Reporting Directive
    Providing a scheme to simplify and improve on the reporting requirements to the European Commission under various environmental directives.
  • Community Empowerment Act
    This Act provides a range of new powers for communities to get involved in the ownership of land and other assets, in decision making, and in securing better outcomes through public services. These powers include community right to buy, asset transfer requests and participation requests. The Scottish Government has detailed guidance on the Community Empowerment and Engagement Website on how to make requests. Requests should be made using our online contact form.