European Union governments and lawmakers reached agreement on new legislation that will force industries guilty of polluting the environment to pay for the clean-up.
EU governments and members of the European Parliament hammered out a compromise text on the "polluter pays" directive that is expected to become law next month.
But environmentalists have attacked the draft law as being too soft, as it does not cover nuclear pollution or marine oil pollution and limits liability for biological contamination from genetically modified crops.
EU Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom, however, said she was delighted that the EU law on environmental liability was finally in sight of the statute books after first being mooted 15 years ago.
"The idea that the polluter must pay is a cornerstone of EU environmental policy, and with the new directive, we are, for the first time, putting the 'polluter pays principle' into practice in a comprehensive manner," she said.
"The new directive should be a strong incentive to prevent environmental damage from happening at all," the Swedish commissioner added.
"I find it particularly important and relevant that the new directive will apply to protected habitats and species at a time when so many threats adversely impact the world's biodiversity."
The directive targets several specific sectors: industries that generate large amounts of heavy metal waste, chemical manufacturers, waste disposal and incinerator operators.
It will cover damage to species and natural habitats protected at EU level, to protected waters, and to land contamination "which causes significant risk of harming human health".
But it leaves out sensitive areas such as nuclear power, and it will not require industry to take out insurance against environmental damage, to the anger of green groups.
The insurance requirement was the key sticking point, with the EU parliament finally giving in on that demand and instead agreeing with member states that such coverage should be voluntary for companies.
But the EU governments did agree that the commission should review the issue in six years to see if such insurance should be made mandatory.
Rosanna Micciche, a spokeswoman for environmental campaign group Greenpeace, said the law had been watered down to the point of irrelevance.
"We regret that, after years of debates at the European level on how to best apply the 'polluter pays' principle, European taxpayers will continue to foot the bill for environmental damage in most cases," she said.
"This directive... makes as little difference as possible to the status quo," Micciche added.
© Copyright 2004 AFP