Committee passes controversial water act amendments

Ljubljana – The parliamentary environment committee has passed amendments to the water act changes, under which hazardous substances could be used under certain condition by production facilities located in water protection areas. While the government says adequate safety mechanisms are envisaged, the opposition warns of harmful effects for water sources.

Another major change, as presented to the committee on Tuesday by Environment and Spatial Planning Minister Andrej Vizjak, is the possibility to allow the construction of public-use facilities on water and coastal properties, and intermittent lakes.

This means that restaurants, business buildings, shopping centres, hotels and other service activities, public roads, car parks and playgrounds could be built in these areas under the condition that construction would not increase the risk of flooding or erosion, or decrease the quality of water.

“This seems rational. It will allow municipalities and others to carry out development projects. Many want to build bike and walking paths with additional structures along streams,” said Vizjak.

Moreover, the amendments envisage the use of funds of the Water Fund for water management utilities if other funding sources run low. Vizjak said that the EU recovery and resilience plan will allow funding of anti-flooding measures.

But perhaps the most controversial amendment, allowing use of hazardous substances in industrial production in water protection areas, was proposed by the Economy Ministry after the interdepartmental coordination of the changes, according to Vizjak.

The coalition-proposed amendment allows construction in water protection areas of facilities intended for production processes using hazardous substances, and which require environmental approval to be built, as well as waste disposal facilities.

This is currently prohibited by law, but will be allowed if the changes are passed provided that this is approved by the government and that the construction will not have a major impact on the quality of water.

The parliamentary legal service warned that this amendment may define an exception to a legal prohibition, citing a Constitutional Court decision that a by-law must be within the framework and on the basis of the Constitution and the law.

The amendment triggered a vocal response from several NGOs and the opposition, criticising the fact that the proposal was tabled after the public review of the changes.

The opposition also criticised the fact that vital changes are being rushed through parliament and proposed a public presentation of opinions, which was voted down.

It is key that Slovenia protect potable water, said Miha Stergel of the civil initiative Danes. “It is the responsibility of the state to provide potable water to all citizens… This goes beyond party principles, political persuasion and old grudges. We believe that any sensible person will draw a red line at potable water.”

The issue of potable water protection was also raised by the opposition. Edvard Paulič of the Marjan Šarec List (LMŠ) said it will be impossible to repair the consequences once an accident happens and ground water is polluted.

Touching on Vizjak’s claim that the government’s decisions to approve construction would be based on expert opinions, Paulič said this might or might not be the case.

He is also bothered by the fact that the amendment will allow the construction of hospitality facilities in water areas. “We’re putting the interests of capital and industry above all else.”

Željko Cigler of the Left said the right to clean drinking water took priority over freedom to conduct business, while Andrej Rajh of the Alenka Bratušek Party (SAB) said the amendment brought uncertainty and risks.

Dejan Židan of the opposition meanwhile said that any interference in protection of aquifers should be based on expertise, adding that no relevant expert opinion was heard in relation to the changes.

Vizjak, on the other hand, said the NGO’s arguments were far fetched and created “negativist atmosphere”. He also said that currently there are no restrictions in place for services involving hazardous substances, such as gas stations, in water protection areas.