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Special Rapporteur on Toxic Waste concludes his visit to the Poland

Warsaw, 31 May 2011

Dr. Calin Georgescu, Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Human Rights Council on the adverse effects of the movement and dumping of toxic and dangerous products and wastes on the enjoyment of human rights issued this statement today:

Ladies and Gentlemen,

From 25 to 31 May 2011, I carried out an official mission to Poland in my capacity as the Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Human Rights Council on the adverse effects of the movement and dumping of toxic and dangerous products and wastes on the enjoyment of human rights. The purpose of my visit was to examine, in a spirit of co-operation and dialogue, the progress made and the difficulties encountered by your country in implementing its obligations under human rights and environmental law to ensure the sound management and disposal of hazardous products and wastes.

Let me begin by expressing my gratitude to the Government of Poland for inviting me to visit the country. In particular, I would like to extend my appreciation to the Ministry of Environment, which played a major role in the preparation and organisation of this mission. The openness shown by the Government before and during my visit demonstrates its commitment and willingness to co-operate with international human rights mechanisms in the solution of the outstanding challenges that Poland faces in the field of sound management and disposal of toxic and dangerous products and wastes.

I welcome the significant progress Poland has made in protecting its people from the adverse impact that hazardous chemicals and toxic wastes may have on the effective enjoyment of human rights.

The Polish Constitution promotes and protects the inherent and inalienable dignity of the person, as well as the right to life, the right to health, the right to safe and healthy working conditions, the right to information and public participation and  other human rights set out in the international and regional instruments to which Poland is a party. The Constitution also requires public authorities to protect the right of every person of present and future generations to live in an environment adequate to his or her health and well-being.

In compliance with the obligations it has undertaken by joining the European Union in 2004, Poland has also developed an impressive legal framework to ensure the environmentally sound management of toxic and dangerous products and wastes throughout their life cycle. This body of norms include the Act on Environmental Protection and the Act on Waste, both adopted in 2001, and a number of legal acts aiming at regulating specific waste streams (for example, electronic waste and end-of-life vehicles). Nevertheless, additional efforts are needed to bring national legislation in compliance with international and EU regulations which seek to eliminate, or reduce to a minimum, the risks that these hazardous products and wastes pose to human health and the environment.
I welcome the adoption of the 2014 National Waste Management Plan. The Plan aims at achieving sustainable development by reducing the amount of waste generated through education and improved effectiveness of resource use. According to the Plan, waste produced should – whenever possible – be reused, recycled or recovered. When no other economically viable way of dealing with wastes exists, wastes should be disposed of in an environmentally sound way close to the point at which it is generated (proximity principle).

Moving on to the institutional framework, I note that responsibilities for the implementation of legislation and policies in the area of the management and disposal of hazardous products and wastes are distributed among a number of different ministries and public bodies. These include the Ministry of Environment, which is the nodal agency for the implementation of policies and programmes relating to the protection of the environment, the Institute for Environmental Protection, and the Bureau for Chemical Substances and Preparations. Other Ministries, such as the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Labour, have responsibilities in the area of environmental health and health and safety at work.

In my view, this complex institutional framework could and should be streamlined, so as to improve its effectiveness and avoid duplication or overlapping of responsibilities between different ministries and agencies. I believe that the creation of a national platform for cooperation between different ministries and State institutions responsible for chemicals and waste management, which is currently under consideration, would facilitate exchange of information and better coordination among these agencies.

A number of central and local authorities are responsible to monitor compliance with national legislation on environmental protection, waste and chemicals management and public health. They include the Chief Inspectorate for Environmental Protection and its regional inspectorates, the National Labour Inspectorate, the Chief Sanitary Inspectorate and the Inspectorate for Chemical Substances and Preparations.

As is the case for regulatory agencies, I am of the view that a better cooperation and collaboration is needed at the regional level to improve the effectiveness of the inspection system. Joint inspections would reduce the burden on industrial and agricultural enterprises with high pollution potential, which are subject to several inspections per year, and facilitate more frequent inspections of small and medium companies, which are on average inspected only once every four years. I also believe that additional human and financial resources should be allocated to the regional inspectorates in order to strengthen compliance with, and ensure the effective enforcement of, national legislation on chemicals and waste management.

There are a number of challenges in the fields of chemicals and waste management that need to be addressed in order to minimise the risks that hazardous chemicals and toxic waste pose to the effective enjoyment of human rights.

The municipal waste management system needs significant improvements. At present, municipal waste is collected by private enterprises in accordance with agreements concluded with real estate owners. The system of collection of municipal waste does not allow for the segregation of hazardous waste contained with mixed municipal waste streams. Moreover, a significant part of this waste – approximately 86 per cent of the total – continues to be disposed of in municipal waste landfills due to the lack of a sufficient number of installations for the thermal treatment of mixed municipal waste.  

I am aware of the fact that the Senate is currently considering a draft law on waste. I call on the Parliament to finalise, as a matter of priority and in close consultation with civil society organisations, the adoption of such law, so as to bring national legislation in compliance with international human rights and environmental standards on the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous waste.

With regard to specific waste streams, I recommend that Poland consider adopting a specific act to regulate the sound management, transportation and disposal of medical waste in accordance to its nature (infectious waste, chemical and radioactive waste). Insofar as possible, medical waste should always be disposed of in the region in which it is generated. The new law should include specific provisions to ensure that outdated medicaments be collected separately from household waste and disposed of by using thermal treatment methods.

I recommend that Poland adopt additional measures to facilitate access to information on hazardous chemicals and toxic waste. Information currently available is not easily accessible, especially for person with no or limited access to the Internet, older persons or persons living in rural areas. The Ministry of Environment should intensify its efforts to promote environmental campaigns, including through mass media, and public awareness initiatives among the public on the risks that these substances may pose to human health and the natural environment and on the safety measures to minimise these risks.

Limited public participation on issues related to chemicals and waste management is an issue of particular concern for my mandate. During my visit, I did not manage to identify any civil society organisation working in the field of human rights and the environment. The NGOs I met did not have sufficient expertise on chemicals and waste management, and were not aware about the major problems associated with the implementation of national legislation in these areas.

I am aware that many NGOs have been adversely affected by the financial crisis of 2007, which forced many of them to reduce their personnel or close their activities. However, I am of the opinion that much more needs to be done in order to ensure public participation of civil society organisations in the design and implementation of legislation and policies concerning chemicals and waste management. In this regard, I urge national authorities and relevant European institutions to provide additional non-earmarked funds to NGOs so as to enable civil society participation and ensure strengthened scrutiny of Governmental action in these areas.

Finally, let me say a few words on the discussion currently underway at the national level with regard to the proposed construction of a nuclear power plant in the country.

I am aware that Poland is highly dependent on coal for energy generation, with more than 90 per cent of electricity generated from combustion of hard coal and brown coal, and needs to diversify its sources for energy production. I am also conscious that nuclear power is and will remain a controversial topic, and that it would not be appropriate for me to take a position in the debate currently underway on the use and safety of nuclear energy. Proponents of nuclear power contends that a shift from coal combustion processes for energy and heat production to nuclear power would contribute to the reduction of Poland’s CO2 emissions to the atmosphere, while its opponents highlights the threats that nuclear power pose to human health and the environment, as the recent nuclear accident in Fukushima has showed.

It is of vital importance that any decision in this regard be taken on the basis of a wide consultation at the national level. In order to ensure meaningful participation of the public in decision-making processes concerning the construction of a nuclear power plant, public authorities should provide adequate information to the public. Such information should not be limited to the location of the future nuclear power plant and the timeframe for its construction; it should also include the most recent information and scientific data on uranium procurement, on the possible risks associated with the use of nuclear energy and on the solutions envisaged for the safe storage and environmentally sound disposal of nuclear waste generated by the power plant.

I therefore encourage Polish national authorities to take all necessary steps to ensure that its population participate in an informed, transparent and fair manner to any decision concerning the construction of the proposed nuclear power plant. Given the importance of the matter, I encourage the Parliament and the President of the Republic to consider organising a nationwide referendum on this matter.

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Calin Georgescu, the Executive Director of the National Centre for Sustainable Development in Bucharest (Romania), was appointed Special Rapporteur in 2010 by the Human Rights Council. As Special Rapporteur, he is independent from any government or organization and serves in his individual capacity.
Learn more on the mandate of the Special Rapporteur:

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