Research for the Environment Agency to counter EU infraction proceedings against the UK Government relating to the alleged eutrophication of estuaries including the Humber
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Hull
Unit of AssessmentGeography, Environmental Studies and Archaeology
Summary Impact TypeEnvironmental
Research Subject Area(s)
Environmental Sciences: Environmental Science and Management
Biological Sciences: Ecology
Engineering: Environmental Engineering
Summary of the impact
In 2008-2009 the UK was subject to legal infraction proceedings at the
European Court of Justice
(ECJ) for allegedly failing to implement the European Union's Urban
Directive (UWWTD). Research by the Institute of Estuarine and Coastal
Studies, Hull (IECS) for
the Environment Agency (EA)/Defra provided evidence to the UK Government
for its defence
against these allegations. The research consisted of:
- literature/data reviews and collection and analysis of critical
evidence from the Humber.
- co-ordinating workshops and convening an expert panel of sufficient
opinion to counteract the European Court of Justice allegations.
In December 2009 the European Court of Justice ruled in favour of the UK.
Our research therefore
helped to save very significant, unnecessary capital investment in
nutrient removal technology for
sewage treatment nationally and in the Yorkshire and Humber region
especially. The UK
government thus avoided the possibility of major European Commission fines
of up to €703,000
per day, or €256m per annum, for infraction of the Urban Water-water
Treatment Directive .
The Humber estuary is hypernutrified by domestic and agricultural
nutrients (Boyes & Elliott, 2006).
In the 1990s the European Commission (EC) was concerned about nutrient
levels in estuaries and
their associated environmental problems (after Directive 91/271). After
commissioning a report from
a consultancy on the possibility, the European Commission suggested that
the Humber might be
(or may become) eutrophic. The Commission therefore raised a legal
infraction case on 4
November 1999 relating to the Humber and other UK estuaries [2: 14]. The
requires the national government to address the allegation or eventually
face very substantial fines.
The UK Government required the Environment Agency (EA) to respond to the
allegation with full,
robust and appropriate evidence, that would be legally defensible. In
turn, the Environment Agency
asked IECS to test the conceptual and empirical validity of the allegation
and to provide the
regional evidence for the Humber estuary -which drains 20% of England- to
prepare a response: this
was the `Humber Infraction Project' (HIP).
One element of the underpinning research for this impact originates with
work by Mike Elliott (Chair
in Estuarine and Coastal Sciences and IECS Director, 1996 to present) into
the Humber's nutrient
status. He undertook research funded by Yorkshire Water on this topic in
2002 and wrote a key
paper as an output (Boyes and Elliott 2006). Therefore, IECS was
approached by the Environment
Agency due, in part, to Elliott's prior research, but also due to the
international reputation of IECS
in estuarine ecology, management and eutrophication .
The second element of the underpinning research for this impact is the
work undertaken by IECS
for the `Humber Infraction Project' in response to the infraction
proceedings. This research was
undertaken by Elliott; Krysia Mazik (Senior Benthic Ecologist, IECS, 2000
to present); Shona
Thompson (GIS specialist and Coastal Geographer, IECS, 2003 to present);
and IECS staff Sue
Travers, Anna Phelps, Katya Solyanko and Lauren Tewson (Research
Assistants, IECS, 2008-09).
Between 1 June 2008 and 31 March 2009, IECS led the following research:
a) IECS assembled six international experts for a workshop to determine
the validity of existing
scientific evidence, that might be used to respond to the European
Commission's case. This
expert panel was chaired by Elliott and included Mazik, de Jonge (Honorary
an independent consultant and two other academics from UK Universities.
The expert panel concluded that eutrophication would not occur in the
Humber due to the
hydrodynamic conditions in this estuary, especially the shallow photic
zone, that restrict
excessive growth of phytoplanton and macroalgae in hypernutrified water
otherwise have the potential to become eutrophic (Elliott et al. 2008).
This research, drawing upon the extensive international expertise of the
panel and their targeted
literature reviews, contributed significantly to the evidence-base for the
Agency response to the European Commission.
b) IECS also identified, designed and led further field-research into the
Humber estuary (Mazik et
al., 2008), which helped to establish a more robust scientific base for
the Humber Infraction
Project. This additional research included ground-truthing surveys for the
whole estuary to
validate Environment Agency Compact Airborne Spectrographic Imager (CASI)
The research programme also involved extensive analyses of:
- sediment chlorophyll-a content (via field sampling);
- macroalgal, macrophyte and diatom cover (via field sampling and
airborne spectral survey);
- ecological quality data (via diatom survey and species identification);
- phytoplankton data provided by the Environment Agency (to determine the
This research confirmed that, although the Humber was hypernutrified, it
was not eutrophic (Elliott
et al., 2008; Mazik et al., 2008; Mazik et al., 2009). The research also
established that there was
no extensive proliferation of macroalgal mats (Ulva spp.) or
nuisance phytoplankton (indicating
eutrophication) in the Humber. This was due to:
- the high natural turbidity of the Humber that restricts the light
penetration needed for algal
- the softer sediment types of the Humber that are unsuitable for dense
green algal growth;
- the high hydrodynamic energy of the Humber, which removes microalgae
from the surface,
hindering their establishment.
The research also demonstrated that microalgal species in the water
column were predominantly
re-suspended benthic diatoms (Mazik et al., 2009).
The research produced the following outputs:
- a statement to the Environment Agency by the Expert Panel on the
eutrophication status of
the Humber (Elliott et al. 2008);
- two scientific reports (Mazik et al. 2008; Mazik et al. 2009);
- a scientific publication in an international journal (Elliott and
This evidence was used to defend the UK's case against the European
proceedings: the IECS research underpinned the EA/Defra response for the
Humber — the
estuary in the infraction proceedings against the UK.
References to the research
• Boyes, S.J and Elliott, M. (2006) Organic Matter and Nutrient Input to
the Humber estuary,
Marine Pollution Bulletin, 53,136-143.
• Elliott, M., Underwood, G., Wilkinson, M., Mazik, K., de Jonge, V.N.,
Dodge, G. (2008)
Statement by the Expert Panel on the Eutrophic status of the Humber
Estuary as Requested by
the Environment Agency, December 2008.
• Elliott, M. and Whitfield, A. (2011) Challenging paradigms in estuarine
management, Estuarine, Coastal & Shelf Science, 94, 306-314.
• Hering, D., Borja, A., Carstensen, J., Carvalho, L., Elliott, M., Feld,
C.K., Heiskanen, A.S.,
Johnson, R.K., Moe, J., Pont, D., Solheim, A., van de Bund, W. (2010) The
Framework Directive at the age of 10: A critical review of the
recommendations for the future, Science of the Total Environment,
408, 19, 4007-4019.
• Mazik, K., Thomson, S., Elliott, M., Solyanko, K. and Phelps, A. (2008)
CASI ground truth
surveys — Humber estuary 2008, Report to Environment Agency,
Institute of Estuarine and
Coastal Studies, University of Hull, 8th December 2008.
• Mazik, K., Solyanko, E., Elliott, M. and De Jonge, V.N. (2009) Summary
of microalgal species
composition and water quality in the Humber Estuary, Report to
Environment Agency. Institute
of Estuarine and Coastal Studies, University of Hull, 26 March 2009.
• Boyes, S. and Elliott, M., Trophic and organic status of the Humber
estuary, Yorkshire Water,
£16,000 (June 2002 — September 2002).
• Elliott, M., A Scientific Understanding of the Tees Estuary to
Determine the Cause of Macroalgal
Mats at Seal Sands, Northumbrian Water £75,425 (February 2006 —
• Elliott, M., Humber Water Quality Status Assessment: Eutrophication
and Algal Bloom Issues,
Environment Agency, £11,850 (June 2008 — August 2008).
• Elliott, M., Site Characterisation of European Marine Sites: Humber
Estuary pSAC, pSPA,
Ramsar, English Nature, £19,200 (November 2008 — March 2009).
• Mazik, K., CASI surveys and ground truthing to assess the
eutrophication status of the Humber
(specifically looking at the distribution of opportunistic green algae
and diatom biofilms) coupled
with quality analysis, Environment Agency, £36,495 (September 2008 —
Details of the impact
The IECS research fed directly into the UK response to the infraction
proceedings and it
contributed significantly to the UK's defence against the case . If the
infraction proceedings had
been upheld, specific estuaries (including the Humber) would be designated
as `Sensitive Areas
(Eutrophic)' under the European Union's Urban Waste-water Treatment
Directive (UWWTD). In
extreme circumstances EC fines can total €256m per annum, so avoiding
these costs gives this
research impact of national significance . This result also prevented
the need for major
investment in new tertiary treatment to remove nutrients from estuaries
and catchments (a more
likely EC measure). Estimates suggest that this would require huge
investment (the EA estimate is
known, but they wish to keep this confidential) . For the Humber
catchment, these costs would
be funded by Anglian, Yorkshire and Severn-Trent Water plcs and,
ultimately, by consumers.
Again, the savings to the UK of avoiding these additional costs renders
this impact of national
In addition, the robust nature of the IECS research highlighted the
inadequacy of the science and
evidence that underpinned the European Commission's case . By
demonstrating the importance
of producing excellent, rigorous site-specific research, the Humber
Infraction Project also
established the importance of thorough, geographically-sensitive
approaches in future EC
infraction proceedings. This gives this research some international reach.
On 17 August 2007, the European Commission brought its case against the
UK Government for
failing to adhere to European Council Directive 91/271/EEC of 21 May 1991
waste water treatment and the risk of eutrophication in vulnerable
estuaries [2: 1, 59]. Between
1992 and 1997 the UK Government made three responses to the EC Directive
[2: 12]. In turn, the
European Commission appointed `Environmental Resources Management (UK)'
consultancy to report on these vulnerable areas (they reported in March
1999) [2: 13].
Based on this ERM report, the Commission notified the UK (on 4 November
1999) that some
estuaries showed signs of eutrophication and should have been designated
under the EC Directive; they included the Humber, the Wash, the Outer
Southampton Water and the North East Irish Sea [2: 14].
The UK defence involved the EA asking IECS to obtain rigorous and
scientifically and legally
defensible evidence for the Humber estuary that could address the European
assertions . The allegation of possible eutrophication in the Humber
was based upon evidence
collated by the ERM consultancy that assumed the CASI aerial surveys
identified dense, green
algal growth in the Humber which indicated an adverse, eutrophic impact in
the estuary .
The Environment Agency had doubts about the quality of their evidence and
its capacity to sustain
a robust defence against the infraction proceedings. Earlier EA / Natural
England studies on
possible eutrophication in the Humber (2005-2008) were inconclusive. In
2005 the EA had some
evidence that diatoms were the main organisms on the Humber intertidal
sediments, but it required
better and more defensible evidence — especially with the onus on the UK
to demonstrate no signs
of eutrophication . The EA decided that they needed more quantitative
evidence about the algae
and nuisance species in the Humber to defend the case. They therefore
evidence through research collaboration with IECS .
Thanks to Elliott's earlier research on the Humber's organic and nutrient
load (Boyes and Elliott
2006), plus its international reputation, IECS was invited to lead,
organise and deliver the Humber
Infraction Project for the EA. The research outlined in section 2 was
undertaken and the results
(including state of the art scientific reviews; ground-truthing data; CASI
images and mapping;
multivariate statistical analyses; sediment, macroalgae and diatom
sampling and mapping) were
embedded in the EA/Defra submissions to the European Commission .
This new, robust evidence challenged the EU's previous assumptions about
the potential eutrophic
status of the Humber and other UK estuaries. The research was therefore
scrutinised by the EU
Joint Research Centre. The JRC concluded that there was now sufficient
evidence of significant
strength to reject allegations that the Humber estuary was eutrophic (or
was likely to become so).
The European Court of Justice therefore ruled in favour of the UK
Government on 9th December
2009 and removed the infraction proceedings against the Humber [2: 117].
The Court accepted the
new evidence and rejected the earlier analysis by the EC and ERM
Consultancy as being based
on insufficiently rigorous science [2: 88-89]. It also noted that the
European Commission failed to
demonstrate eutrophication on two criteria from four [2: 117]. The EA
submission also resulted in
similar outcomes for the proceedings levied against the Thames estuary,
Liverpool Bay and the Wash .
European Commission fines were not issued against the UK and costly
monitoring and treatment systems in the catchments feeding these estuaries
were not required.
The UK was even awarded its legal costs against the European Commission
[2: 358]. In addition,
the regional sewerage and water companies saved the major costs of
nutrient removal throughout
the Humber catchment . Due to the scale of this catchment, these costs
would have been very
sizeable for the region and the country.
By extension, there were other beneficiaries:
- customers and shareholders of the sewerage and water companies, to whom
the costs would
have been passed ;
- Environment Agency / Natural England, who avoided additional, costly
remedial action to combat the effects of eutrophication ;
- the public, who benefit from the continued amenity values of estuaries
(it is argued that the
social and economic value of eutrophic estuaries decrease) (Herring et al.
- wider UK and European local, national and European authorities: because
evidence from this
case suggests that effective diagnosis of eutrophication can preclude the
costly treatment and court cases.
This applied research also fed into new conceptual paradigms of estuarine
functioning which is
influencing assessments of estuarine systems worldwide (Borja et al. 2010;
Whitfield 2011; Hering et al. 2010).
Sources to corroborate the impact
 Infractions of EU legislation:
 European Court of Justice Judgement (10 December 2009):
[2: 3] denotes this source, point 3.
 Corroborating letter from Regional Water Quality Planning Manager,
Yorkshire and North-East,
Environment Agency. The same person can also be contacted to confirm
details on the potential
costs of this process.
 Borja, Á., Elliott, M., Carstensen, J., Heiskanen, A-S., van de Bund,
W. (2010) Marine
management — towards an integrated implementation of the European Marine
and the Water Framework Directives, Marine Pollution Bulletin, 60,