- Open Access
Dioxin in the Elbe river basin: policy and science under the water framework directive 2000–2015 and toward 2021
© Förstner et al. 2016
- Received: 27 October 2015
- Accepted: 17 February 2016
- Published: 29 March 2016
A critical review of the last 25 years of dioxin policy in the Elbe river catchment is presented along seven main theses of the River Basin Community (RBC)-Elbe background document “Pollutants” for the Management Plan 2016–2021. In this period, polychlorinated dibenzodioxins/-furans (PCDD/Fs) and dioxin-like polychlorinated biphenyls (dl-PCBs) will play a major role: (i) as new priority substances for which environmental quality standards (EQSs) need to be derived (Directive 2013/39/EC); (ii) in the search for innovative solutions in sediment remediation (i.e., respecting the influence of mechanical processes; Flood Risk Directive 2007/60/EC); and (iii) as indicators at the land–sea interface (Marine Strategy Framework Directive 2008/56/EC). In the Elbe river catchment, aspects of policy and science are closely connected, which became particularly obvious in a classic example of dioxin hot spot contamination, the case of the Spittelwasser creek. Here, the “source-first principle” of the first cycle of the European Water Framework Directive (WFD) had to be confirmed in a controversy on the dioxin hot spots with Saxony-Anhalt’s Agency for Contaminated Sites (LAF). At the Spittelwasser site, the move from “inside the creek” to “along the river banks” goes parallel to a general paradigm shift in retrospective risk assessment frameworks and remediation techniques for organic chemicals (Ortega-Calvo et al. 2015). With respect to dioxin, large-scale stabilization applying activated carbon additions is particularly promising. Another important aspect is the assessment of the ecotoxicology of dioxins and dl- PCBs in context of sediment mobility and flood risk assessment, which has been studied in the project framework FloodSearch. Currently, the quality goals of the WFD to reach a “good chemical status” are not met in many catchment areas because substances such as mercury do and others probably will (PCDD/Fs and dl-PCB) exceed biota-EQS values catchment area-wide. So far, relating biota-EQS values to sediment-EQSs is not possible. To overcome these limitations, the DioRAMA project was initiated, which has led to improved approaches for the assessment of dioxin-contaminated sediment using in vitro bioassays and to a robust dataset on the interrelation between dioxins and dioxin-like compounds in sediments and biota.
- Activated carbon
- Bitterfeld region
- Chemical status
- Dredged materials
- Flood risks
- Marine strategy
- RBC Elbe
- Sediment management concept
Two prominent objectives of the European Water Framework Directive (WFD 2000 ) are the catchment-wide no-deterioration status (article 4) and the reduction of priority pollutants . While the former WFD-principle just entered the public discussion via a ruling of the European Court of Justice from July 1, 2015 on a river deepening project , the Actualized River Basin Management Plan of the River Basin Community Elbe from December 22, 2015  states: “without goal-oriented measures for the reduction of primary and secondary pollution sources, the objectives of a good chemical and ecological quality in surface waters until the end of the second WFD management period and a good environmental state according to the European Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD ) until 2020 will be strongly endangered.” Both examples demonstrate the need for comprehensive and in-depth information from policy and river basin administration with regard to WFD key issues.
The same is valid for an involvement of scientific expertise at critical steps in the WFD implementation process. Here, the River Basin Community Elbe has developed a good understanding of “historical contaminated sediments”  and a Sediment Management Concept . On the other hand, the Elbe-typical dioxin problems (mainly originating from federal state area Saxony-Anhalt) were widely ignored by the River Basin Community Elbe, including the representatives from the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg . This happened despite the perspective that in the WFD period 2016–2021, PCDD/Fs and dl-PCBs will play a major role: (a) as new priority substances in the list of biota-Environmental Quality Standards (EQS, i.e., effect-based and legally enforcible numerical quality criteria for assessing the chemical status of aquatic systems) and (b) as the most critical substances at the land–sea interface (i.e., between WFD and MSFD) .
Our contribution to the discussion regarding the first WFD period at the Elbe River will comprise different scientific aspects, by presenting more detailed biological and toxicological implications of dioxins and a review of new concepts for remediation on dioxin-contaminated sediments. Last, the study should reflect the achievements of consultants and experts in ad hoc groups, mostly in German language, as an invitation to the international scientific community to participate in the next cycles of the Elbe River Basin Management Plan.
Thematic overview along the RBC Elbe background document “pollutants” (2015 )
Original statements (in italics) in the seven chapters of the RBC Elbe background document “pollutants”  and further information in the present work (citations in square brackets refer to this work; last column: reference to WFD-near EU-directives, treated in this work, and key sections of this work)
Background document “reduction of pollutant loads” (RBC Elbe 21.12.2015 )
1. Introduction, page 5
The document actualizes the contents of the background paper for the Deduction of Supra-Regional Management Objectives in the German Part of the Elbe River Basin for the Contaminant Focus” (RBC Elbe 2009a )
Introduction: Dioxin from Bitterfeld (Box 1)
2. Supra-regional objectives, p 6–7
“To attain the objectives according to the EG-WFD (2000/60/EG)  and EG Marine Strategy Directive 2008/56/EG [5, 13] direct source-related or at least near-source measures are needed in many water bodies of the Elbe catchment”
2008/56/EG MSFD Land-sea interface; Conclusions/outlook
3. Evaluation—chemical status p 8–15
As a result of an actualization of the assessment from 2013 it has been found that a good chemical status of the Elbe River cannot be met area-wide due to an excess of EQS of mercury (Hg) in biota” (ca. 60 % from re-emissions—soils, sediment, etc).
2013/39/EU new PHS EQS for dioxins/DLSs (RWTH Aachen et al.)
4. Catchment areas, sources, p 16–20
“In the Mulde catchment, the organic pollutants HCH and PCDD/Fs are on the top of the agenda. The middle Elbe is a relevant interim reservoir; its stagnant areas (cut-off meanders, harbors, groin fields) can easily be transferred during floodwater events”
5. Hitherto activities, p 21–22
“The Sediment Management Concept of the RBC Elbe  should contribute to attain a good chemical and ecological status; as such it is a basis for the second RBMP Elbe according to WFD and for the achievement of the environmental objectives of MSRL”
Dioxin stabilization with activated carbon; passive sampling (Box 4)
6. State of implementation, success, p 23–25
“Investigation on organic pollutants in suspended matter, sediments and floodplains of the Spittelwasser and the Lower Mulde River shows, that the massive fine sediment depots in the Spittelwasser do no more exist today”
Radiometric mapping (Box 2 LAF vs Tauw)
7. Challenges, p 26–27
The biggest challenges exist with the very rare flood events from August 2002 (HHQa: upper Elbe R.), March/April 2006, January 2011 and June 2013 (HHQ: lower Elbe R.). “Without a targeted stabilization or removal of highly contaminated historical deposits the flood-induced pollutant releases would remain a significant handicap in attaining the objectives of a good chemical (and biological) quality according to WFD”
2007/60/EC Flood risks, Climate change (Box 5); FloodSearch, DioRAMA (RWTH Aachen et al.)
Based on the risk study initially commissioned by the Hamburg Port Authority (HPA ), the RBC Elbe presented a first background paper on the aspect chemical contamination (RBC Elbe ) for the public discussion of the draft RBMP Elbe, German part (RBC Elbe 2009b ). A special conceptual achievement of the RBCs Pollutant Working Group was the early setting of priorities for remedial measures; here, the reduction needs for sediment-bound pollutants were calculated from mass loads in different areas of concern within a river basin (see RBMP Elbe 2009  section 5.1).
(2) Supra-regional objectives
In a controversy between scientists (primarily authors of the HPA-study ) and a part of the RBC Elbe adminstration on the relation between pollution sources and river basin wide problem solutions (Box 3 “two versions”) the publication of the Sediment Management Concept  eventually decided for the preference of the “source-first principle” (“Sediment management concept: prioritization of measures—Box 3: two versions” section). A still open field is the pollutant transfer from the entire Elbe catchment which induces considerable risks for the marine environment and serious restrictions for the handling of sediment in the tidal areas (MSFD ). At the end of the present review, the largest deficiencies are stated, which can be attributed to the preoccupation of the responsible RBC Elbe partners related to the dioxin issue (; Conclusions and Outlook, this work).
(3) Evaluation—chemical status
Among the eight newly identified priority substances of Directive 2013/39/EU from August 12, 2013  are PCDD/Fs and dl- PCBs; The modified EQS for the existing list have to be applied beginning on December 22, 2015, and come into force on December 22, 2018 for the new substances . The provisions of the Directive 2013/39/EU had to be transferred into national legislation—German Surface Water Ordinance (OGewV)—by September 14, 2015 . “Directive 2013/39/EC—policy and science for biota-EQS of DLCs” section will deal with EQS for dioxin-like compounds (DLCs) and cell-based bioassays for detection of DLCs .
(4) Catchment areas, sources
When preparing remedial measures in the Elbe river basin, the authors of the Sediment Management Concept  have focused on the inventory of sediment volumes and their erodibility under different depositional conditions. In a special action within the Actualized RBMP Elbe  and related to the Sediment Management Concept of the RBC Elbe  the Federal Institute for Hydrology , among other studies, conducted a scientific survey on the groin fields along the Elbe River; one of the results was, that the majority of potentially remobilizable pollutant-rich fine-grained sediments occurs in the groin fields located downstream from Elbe-km 350 (“Sediment management concept: prioritization of measures—Box 3: two versions” section in this work).
(5) Hitherto activities
There are still very few actions which can be classified as “measures to reduce the pollution loads” in the closer sense; at best these activities could be described as “establishment of priority measures within an intensive analytical process” ( page 21). The proposals in “Dioxin stabilization using activated carbon technologies—Box 4: passive sampling” of this work follow Ortega-Calvo et al. , when introducing bioavailability-based concepts at the transition from excavation procedures to regulations of organic chemicals. However, the pretention of the RBC, that the Sediment Management Concept  would be a “basis for the achievement of the environmental objectives of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive” ( page 22, footnote 3), is not supported by practical activities at the land-sea interface (“Marine strategy framework directive 2008/56/EC—sediments and pollutants” section in this work).
(6) State of implementation, success
A complex legal approach in support of the chemical quality under the WFD is an assessment and management of flood risks, following Directive 2007/60/EC ; the special role of sediment-bound contaminants is due to the exponential increase of solid/pollutant loads with higher water flow velocities . A study in cooperation with RBC Elbe “The flood-water induced remobilization of historical contaminated sediments” (BfG 2014 ) calculated the budgets of flood load in the Saale river, which considered both sediment inputs/outputs and the variations of the interim reservoirs. An overview on ecotoxicology in context of sediment mobility and flood risk assessment is presented in “Directive 2007/60/EC—policy and science with special reference to dioxin-like compounds and flood risks” section .
Many of the current problems regarding hydrophobic substances such as polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins and dibenzofurans (PCDD/Fs; often collectively referred to as ‘dioxins’) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) under the EU Water Framework relate to sediments mostly originating from historical release and contamination (Nizzetto et al. ). PCDD/Fs, PCBs, and other mainly sediment-bound pollutants are migrating together with the sediments downstream and may overtime dominate the pollution load in downstream reaches (Verta et al. ). The impacts of sediment-bound pollutants are particularly aggravated during storm events, when these deposits may be mobilized (Wölz et al. ; Weber et al. ). In addition to increased exposure of aquatic organisms, such as fishes, these sediments can also be transferred to floodplains where they can contaminate the food chain via grazing cattle (Lake et al. ; Lake et al. , Schulz et al. , Kamphues et al. ), Weber et al. 2015 .
A classic example is the dioxin hot spot in the Spittelwasser creek of the Bitterfeld Chemical Triangle, Germany, the contaminants of which could be traced in sediment samples downstream the Elbe river as far as to the Hamburg harbor area via its congeneric pattern of PCDD and PCDF (Götz et al. ).
Sources of dioxins in the Elbe catchment area—Box 1: dioxin from Bitterfeld
The extreme contamination in the Elbe catchment area is largely a legacy from elemental chlorine-based metallurgical production at Bitterfeld and two other sites culminating between 1940 and 1945 . The electrochemical industry in this area was closely connected with aircraft construction, which was based on hydrogen gas as a side product during chlorine alkali electrolysis (Harbodt ). In the early 1930s, the booming industrial branch was supplied by the light metal plants at Bitterfeld (Mulde), Aken (Elbe), and Stassfurt (Bode).
In the production process the raw materials, such as magnesium oxide and others, at first reacted with chlorine gas in a conversion furnace; in a second step, the magnesium chloride was transferred to magnesium in a melting electrolytic reaction . The dioxin emissions of such facilities can be extremely high and the only semi-quantified historic emission of a magnesium production to a Norwegian fjord was estimated to 50 to more than 100 kg TEQ (Knutzen and Oehme ). According to the Dioxin Toolkit issued by the UNEP (2005), for one ton of magnesium produced using the fused salt electrolysis process, 9 mg I-TEQ are released into the environment via waste water; this represents an estimated 3 kg I-TEQ for the duration of the Second World War at the Bitterfeld site (Umlauf et al. ) as a minimum release estimate considering that technology has improved over the 60 years.
Based upon characteristic PCDD/F congeners [34, 43], it was at first detected that the extreme contamination of soils and sediments in the 60 km2 Mulde River and Spittelwasser floodplain (Wilken et al. ) was due to emissions from the Bitterfeld plants. More recent analyses by Umlauf et al.  suggest, that the sediment samples from the Bode und Saale can also be allocated to the Bitterfeld-Wolfen-Cluster (thermal magnesium and copper production). Whereas in the Saale catchment considerably lower concentrations of PCDD/Fs are found, the much higher suspended load (factor ten, on average) would probably compensate for this difference compared to the Mulde river (Götz et al. ).
The dioxin ‘hot spot’ sediments in the Spittelwasser creek came under special focus during public discussions. Peak concentrations of 140.000 I-TEQ ng/kg PCDD/Fs were measured in a 800-m-long calm water section with a sediment thickness of up to 2 m [46, 47] and approx. 20,000 m3 fine-grained sediment was estimated in the 1990s (1995 , 1997  and 2000 ). A rough estimate suggested that just one of these ponds containing 5000 m3 with an average of 20,000 ng TEQ per kg sediment could pollute 5 million m3 of Elbe sediment to 20 ng TEQ/kg (“safe sediment value” ); taken the 1990s estimate of 20,000 m3 hot spot deposits with an average of 20,000 ng TEQ per kg sediment one would calculate a total of 0.4 kg TEQ Dioxin in the ponds of the Spittelwasser creek .
It was argued that the Spittelwasser acts as a flood channel of the lower Mulde River when the water discharges in this Elbe tributary exceed a 5-year recurrence flood intensity (HQ5) (Lindemann ). Later, in the SARISK Project (Büttner et al. ) the flow trajectories of the spring flood of 2006 were simulated and it was demonstrated that the remobilization of Spittelwasser sediment will start when the Mulde is spreading over the Radegaster Forst at water discharges exceeding 200 m3/s.
Well then, let mankind wage a slow,
sophisticated war of destruction against this sort of nature.
With sneaking poisons we must try to destroy it.
Novalis, The Novices of Sais
Box 1: Dioxin from Bitterfeld—a common heritage
The Novalis epigram appeared in a publication of Rainer Götz, dioxin expert at the State Environment Agency of Hamburg, who could—in autumn 1989—just speculate on the origin of his PCDD/F findings in the port of Hamburg: probably waste waters from the nine big pulp and paper plants of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) . One year later, on the day of the German reunification, October 3 of 1990, the magazine DER SPIEGEL titled on the situation in Bitterfeld : “This means revolt; the dioxin values are higher than formerly in Seveso; people apparently do not want to understand the facts.” A first—and so far last!—remediation project against Bitterfeld-sourced dioxin was the collection of so-called “glibberpearls,” residues from the production of ion exchangers at the “Chemie AG” ; the action of 1994, which was financially supported by the Free and Hanseatic State of Hamburg, provided measurable improvement for the downstream areas of the Elbe river .
The findings of the true sources of the large-scale dioxin contamination in the Elbe catchment had no effect on decisions to solve the problem: The feasibility study from 1993 for the sanitation of the Spittelwasser sediments, demanded of the district office Bitterfeld , is still kept secret. The dioxin cases of Saxony-Anhalt were obviously not on the shortlist of the sanitation program of the Treuhandanstalt (“Trust agency”); in this action, primarily established to privatize East German enterprises, the remediation budget was cut-down from 100 billion German Mark (~50 billion EURO) to less than 10 % (~4 billion EURO) at the end of the Treuhand-activities . This experience could explain the different “spirit” in Saxony-Anhalt’s administration when putting into practice the WFD in the Elbe River Basin community after 2001 .
Spittelwasser remediation project (feasibility study 1993)
The sensitive flood situation of the 160 km2 lowland area around Bitterfeld and the particular risks from mobile dioxin-rich deposits in the Spittelwasser creek urgently called for immediate remediation measures. Prominent companies participated in the feasibility study 1993 of the District Office of Bitterfeld  and after an evaluation of the technical aspects the consultants presented the following proposal for the remediation of the Spittelwasser dioxin hot spots :
“According to available estimation (see above) ~20,000 m3 of sludge with a mean dry substance content of 17 % are deposited in the 3 km long river section under consideration. Based on the properties of the sediments, which—apart from the very high water content—in most cases are characterized by high percentages of fine-grained materials and organic contents, a combination of all reasonable procedures leads to 24 different remediation concepts. For the 12 variants of a shortlist expenses for full solutions can be predicted in the range of 20–30 million German Mark (DM; ~10–15 million EURO). From an ecological, technological and economic view on these variants the consultants prefer the dry recovery and wet separation of the sediments in a sand/gravel and a fine-grain fraction (grain diameter <0.06 mm) with subsequent washing of sand and thermal treatment of the fine fraction (Variant V-6 WV). Expected costs of this variant were 20.9 million DM (~10.5 million EURO).”
The feasibility study from 1993  is still relevant for similar sites of mobile historical contaminated sediments. With the more recent technical developments, e.g., for new hydraulic devices, the loss of contaminated sediments during extraction could be minimized (“Sediment management concept: prioritization of measures—Box 3: two versions” section).
Dioxin concentrations in the Spittelwasser-Mulde-Elbe system 2006/2007
Σ PCDD/F in I-TEQ ng/kg in suspended matter 2006/2007 . Stations Mulde (Bad Düben, Dessau) monthly mixed samples at the automated measurement stations
Mulde (Bad Düben)
Samples from automated measurement stations (number of datasets in italics) 
The State Agency for Flood Protection and Water Management of Saxony-Anhalt later became involved in the studies on dioxin-polluted sediments in the Saale and Bode rivers .
Radiometric mapping along the Spittelwasser creek—Box 2: Tauw vs. LAF
Originally planned as a “hydraulic system analysis of the Bitterfeld area” under the contentious dialog of Saxony-Anhalt’s new Agency for Contaminated Sites (; Box 2) it became the most interesting side product of the Tauw-Study “Spittelwasser Pollutant Load Reduction” [19, 20]: The radiometric mapping of contaminants (Sn, HCHs, DDX, and PCDD/PCDF) in the Spittelwasser floodplain, which was performed in collaboration with MEDUSA bv (Groningen, The Netherlands) from 2011 to 2013. The procedure has been successfully used over more than ten years to transform areal data of the natural gamma radiation into maps of sediment and soil structures or—as in the present case—maps of contamination levels (e.g., Van der Graaf et al. ).
The transformation step uses the correlation between the pollutant parameter and the respective radionuclide concentration; in the Spittelwasser case, the correlation equation for dioxin was determined from a pilot study as PCDD/Fs (ng TEQ/g) = 2.38 − 0.016*K + 0.103*U with R 2 of 0.66 and p value of 0.0028 . In Fig. 1, which combines the information from two sources (Jacobs et al. 2013  and Jacobs 2014 ), the concentration data for PCDD/Fs (in ng TEQ/kg) were shown in 18 intervals from less than 20 ng TEQ/kg (this is the upper threshold value for PCDD/Fs of the RBC Elbe [4, 10]) up to 6000 ng TEQ/kg (yellow to red colors >2000 ng TEQ/kg). A first conclusion from the radioactive mapping activity of Tauw [19, 20] should have been that with a more than 100-fold exceedance of the upper threshold value for dioxin at 20 ng TEQ/kg, a sufficient initial suspicion was given for undertaking further actions. Instead, the River Basin Community Elbe declared the problem as being solved (Box 2).
In their expertise, Jacobs et al.  calculated an integrated mass load (to 0.3 m sediment depth) of 0.61 kg TEQ for the central Spittelwasser area between Jeßnitz (south-east) and Raguhn (north); this total load is 50 % higher than the estimated load from the former hot spots in the Spittelwasser ponds (last paragraph in “Sources of dioxins in the Elbe catchment area—Box 1: dioxin from Bitterfeld” section). With these data—even as very rough estimates—there are good reasons to consider more detailed studies both for the assessment of priority areas and the selection of appropriate remedial measures (see “Dioxin stabilization using activated carbon technologies—Box 4: passive sampling” section). With regard to areal dioxin load Zone 2 (Fig. 1 ), which forms the near-range left and right along the Spittelwasser course, would become the first priority for actions. According to Jacobs et al.  Zone 2 was preferably overflown with polluted waters from the formerly highly contaminated Spittelwasser; at regressing floodwater sedimentation of highly contaminated material mainly took place in these low-leveled areas.
Box 2: Consultancy between science and local administration—Tauw vs. LAF
At the end of the first WFD cycle, the Background Document “Pollutants” of the Elbe RBMP  called it a “success,” when some information from the Tauw Report  suggested that the summer flood of 2002 could have eroded the most critical dioxin hot spots from the Spittelwasser river bed. Until now, against better judgement, the picture of a self-cleaning river system remained untouched within the River Basin Community Elbe administration.
The Tauw Report  is the outcome of a “contentious dialog,” officially installed by Saxony-Anhalt in 2009  after controversial discussions on the “Risk Study”  and the source-first principle (Box 3 “two versions”). The report to Saxony-Anhalt’s Agency for Contaminated Sites (LAF) dates from October 21, 2013; in the public on line version of LAF from July 2014 [ 19 ] the all-decisive dioxin map—previously presented by Tauw’s Patrick Jacobs at a RBC Elbe Workshop on December 17, 2013—was missing: Did the consultants capitulate in the face of the powerful client and its no-action policy ?
Tauw has tried to defend its standards at three occasions: (1) A hint to a promising, yet unpublished neighbor study, (2) a cryptic announcement: “an examination of other measures beyond that will be recommended by the authors,” and (3) a later publication of the dioxin map (Fig. 1) in the Tauw newsletter of July 2014 (Jacobs ), subsequent to the online release of the final report .
Since the year 2000, any risk assessment in European waters is made by the holistic river basin approach of the Water Framework Directive (WFD) of the European Union [1, 4]. The chemical status of water bodies is to be assessed in terms of compliance with the quality standards (QSs) and under other relevant Community legislation setting environmental quality standards (EQSs) . Initial steps for measures under the WFD were: 2005 first pressure and impact analysis (Article 5), 2006 monitoring programmes to be operational (Article 8) and 2009 establishment of the programme of measures (Article 11).
The development of a WFD concept for historically contaminated sediments
The Scientific Committee on Toxicity, Ecotoxicity and the Environment (CSTEE ) concluded from its report “The setting of environmental quality standards for the priority substances included in Annex X of WFD,” that “specific quality standards can and should be developed for sediment and biota.” The Expert Advisory Forum on Priority Substances and Pollution Control (EAF ), while developing a sequence of procedures for the program of measures, proposed the specific source/pathway ‘historical pollution from sediments’ (S11) for inclusion into an initial ‘source screening.’
An initial reference to this type of sediments and pollutants such as dioxins was given from the Elbe river basin by Förstner et al. (2004 ); the common characteristics of historically contaminated sediments (“HCSs”) and “historical pollutants” (“HPs”) is the limited ability for applying proactive measures to reduce their initial entrance into the aquatic environment.
Since then it is clear that the problems associated with both historic issues form a typical internal task of the river basin communities; here, a three-step strategy has been developed by Heise and Förstner (2006 ) for the assessment of risks on Rotterdam harbor arising from HCS in the Rhine river basin, by the identification of (i) substances of concern, (ii) areas of concern, and (iii) areas of risk with regard to the probability of polluting the sediments in the downstream reaches. The processes involved are dominated by mechanical re-suspension (Förstner et al. 2007 ), i.e., flood events, and this means, with regard to remedial measures, “a targeted stabilization or removal of highly contaminated historical deposits” .
On December 24, 2008, the Directive 2008/105/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council on environmental standards in the field of water policy was published [59, 60]; one of the amendments of the original European Water Framework Directive  refers to the need to improve the knowledge and data available on sources of priority substances and ways in which pollution occurs in order to identify targeted and effective control options. “Within the framework of the review of Annex X to Directive 2000/60/EC , as provided for in Article 16(4) of that Directive, the Commission shall consider inter alia the substances set out in Annex III to this Directive ( for possible identification as priority substances or priority hazardous substances. The commission shall report the outcome of its review to the European Parliament and to the Council by 13 January 2011.”
The next step in the progress of dioxin issues in aquatic systems was the publication of the Directive 2013/39/EU of the European Parliament and the Council of 12 August 2013 amending Directives 2000/60/EC and 2008/105/EC as regards priority substances in the field of water policy (Anonymous 2013 ). The revised EQS should primarily be considered in the River Basin Management Plans for period 2015–2021 .
Spittelwasser under the water framework directive
The Spittelwasser area was chosen by the organizers of the international conference ConSoil 2000 for a case comparison and four expert teams from Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands,and the UK were invited. Evaluation of the plan was done by members of the NICOLE (Network for Industrial Contaminated Land) and CLARINET (Contaminated Land Rehabilitation Network) networks .
In the study of the German team (Wittmann et al. ), a stepwise approach combining monitoring techniques and remediation measures was identified by the environmental authorities to be used for the contaminated floodplain areas . This approach provides for point excavations of critical material and also for the installation of sediment traps. It also includes the promotion of plant growth to stabilize the soils and sediments as well as support evapotranspiration. It has been argued that the design of geotechnical measures will mainly depend on the flow patterns of the water course during flood events. The plan for a pilot or test study on a part of the floodplain area was scheduled for a 4-year implementation period and 15 years for aftercare; it was calculated for initially 2.2 million EUR, not including the costs for sediment traps, excavations, and wetland construction (which would exceed the other costs by one to two orders of magnitude).
When Saxony-Anhalt’s new Agency for contaminated sites took over wider responsibilities in 2001, the offer of the Federal Ministry for Education and Research for funding, the German initiative in the Spittelwasser area was not further pursued by the Ministry of Agriculture and Environment in Saxony-Anhalt.
Source sanitation. Excavation of approximately 20,000 m3 dioxin hot spot sediment from the Spittelwasser creek (“Spittelwasser remediation project (feasibility study 1993)” section).
Floodplain remediation, concerning a few tens of km2 of stable soils (“fluvisols”) and erodible channel sediments by new technologies such as monitored natural recovery (MNR), capping, bioremediation, phytoremediation, and embedding into a runoff control system (wetland approach in the widest sense ).
Within the common frame of the Large Ecological Project Bitterfeld-Wolfen (“Ökologisches Großprojekt Bitterfeld-Wolfen,” ÖGP), the managing State Agency for Contaminated Sites of Saxony-Anhalt (LAF) has spent 230 million EUR in the period from 2001 to 2010 for ground water sanitation, but no substantial responsibility was taken for the sediment issue (; the first Bitterfeld sediment projects in the year 2008 did not even mention the substance group of PCDD/Fs [68, 69].
Sediment management concept: prioritization of measures—Box 3: two versions
The sediment management concept of the River Basin Community Elbe was developed by the Ad hoc Working Group Pollutants/Sediment Management of the RBC Elbe headed by Dr. Peter Heininger (Federal Institute of Hydrology, Koblenz) in the time period of 2011–2013 (see Fig. 2 in “Spittelwasser under the water framework directive” section).
The quality criteria of the RBC Elbe for measures on contaminated sediments are based on a differentiation of two groups of Elbe-relevant substances; group 1, forming the regulation level “e” in the RBC Elbe Sediment Management Concept (RBC Elbe 2013 ), includes substances, which are explicitly regulated with respect to the protection of human health, e.g., As, Cd, Hg, Pb, HCHs, HCB, benzo(a)pyrene (PAH), and PCDD/Fs; other sediment contaminants are listed under the less stringent Group 2.
Direct source. The solution of a problem at the source and the elimination of the cause, respectively, had to be preferred (see Box 3: two versions).
Near source. If the causative source does no longer exist, the solution should be installed as close as possible to the original source (“stairwell cleaning from above”).
Resonance 1. Recommendation would have a positive effect on the other aspects (“hydromorphology” and “shipping”).
Resonance 2. One-shot investment affecting permanently reduced follow-up costs.
The criteria 5–7 indicate a tendency for downgrading the relevance of a certain measure, such as “degree of difficulty/requirements for realization” (No. 5) or “reliability of predicting the success potential”, i.e., due to the variability of the system (No. 6). The exclusion criterion “missing proportionate solution potential” (No. 7) will only be applied in exceptional cases at very well founded state of knowledge.
Criteria for the selection and prioritization of recommendations with regard to quality aspects during the sustainable handling of sediments and dredged materials (after “sediment management concept” of the river basin community Elbe (RBC Elbe 2013, Table 6-6 )
Region of origin (source type)
Degree of difficulty
Sanitation contaminated sites within or along rivers/creeks/ditches
Within Spittelwasser pre-2002 (1995 - ?)
α-, β-, γ-HCH; Dioxins/Furans
Along Spittelwasser post-2002 (2013)
In situ, AC
Elimination interim sediment depots
Saale a (side structures)
Hg, Cd, Pb; α-, β-, γ-HCH; benzo(a)pyrene; dioxins/furans
Saalea (lock reservoirs)
Lower Bode river a (sedimentation zones)
Elbe below km 300 (side structures)b
Hg, Cd, Pb, As; α-, β-, γ-HCH; HCB, B(a)pyrene; Dioxins/Furans
Elbe below km 350 (Groin fields)c
The Table shows two different approaches for the remediation of the dioxin pollutants either as hot spots on the bottom of the Spittelwasser creek (“pre-2002-type”; approx. 20,000 m3 at hotspot, “Spittelwasser remediation project (feasibility study 1993)” section) or as areal deposits along this river’s course (“post-2002-type”), according to the findings from the study “Pollution Load Reduction Spittelwasser” of Tauw Consultants [19, 20].
This example reflects the typical development in remediation approaches described in the review on retrospective risk assessment “From bioavailability science to regulation of organic chemicals” by Ortega-Calvo et al. , when introducing bioavailability-based concepts at the transition from excavation procedures to regulations of organic chemicals : One important tool was the explanation of bioavailability to regulators using the concepts given in this paper, which made it possible to design new remediation methods. If organic chemicals are immobilized, the flux from the soil to the pore water is low, usually too low for the contaminant to pose risks […]. Jurisdiction (in the example from Australia) now recognizes that the process of aging can be accelerated via chemically induced immobilization, which results in a rapid decline in bioavailability […]. After treatment, the bioavailable concentration of the chemical, measured as the concentration in the water phase, remained below the detection limit, and no toxicity for earthworms was observed […].
Box 3: “Dioxin longitudinal profile 2008”—two versions
A significant step forward for the understanding of transport phenomena and dispersion of dioxin in the Elbe River was made in the “Dioxin Longitudinal Profile 2008” by Umlauf et al. . The findings were: (a) No significant contribution from other PCDD/F sources was observed along a stretch of approximately 400 km (p. 30 in ). (b) The concentration levels as well as the downstream profile from 2002 to 2008 were rather similar, indicating minor change of the overall situation since 2002. The similarity of the PCDD/F levels is indicative of a stable interrelationship over the course of a long period of time and this observation provided strong arguments for the “source-first” approach in the study “Assessment of Risks from Particle Bound Substances in the Elbe River Basin” (Heise et al. ).
The conclusions of Umlauf et al.  in the original—English—version were: “(1) The main dangers with respect to dioxin contamination in the Elbe are high water events occurring in the Spittelwasser-Mulde-Saale system. (2) Consequently, an improvement in the immission situation for the Elbe can only be expected after the corresponding sources have been adequately cleaned up. (3) A reduction in the pollutant loads in the Elbe would have a positive effect on the immission situation in the coastal parts of the North Sea as well”. In the German version (Stachel et al. ), which was edited by the River Basin Community Elbe, the statements (2) and (3) referring to the source-first principle and to the immission situation of the North Sea were deleted—both would have contradicted to the LAF position in the contentious dialog (see above). Two years later, however, the Sediment Management Concept of the ad hoc Working Group (RCB Elbe ) gave the source-first principle the priority among seven general criteria: “The solution of a problem at the source and the elimination of the cause, respectively, have to be preferred.”
Dioxin stabilization using activated carbon technologies—Box 4: passive sampling
Since the turn of the century activities at North American sediment cleanup sites increasingly move to in situ technologies such as sediment capping, a form of in situ containment, and monitored natural recovery (MNR), where natural processes are used to mitigate the transfer of particle-bound contaminants into the water phase and/or biota; the latter processes could be supported and enhanced by additives (e-MNR, e.g., ). In situ treatment is generally less disruptive and less expensive than traditional sediment cleanup technologies. There continue, however, to be gaps in our knowledge of the fate of contaminants in place, and the effects of in place and ex situ remedial strategies, “which must be filled if management strategies are to be compared and chosen wisely” (Apitz et al. ). This means, that “a shift of emphasis is needed toward the use and communication of results from the analyses of multiple lines of evidence,” e.g., by examining the potential impacts of large, low-probability events or combination of probabilities (e.g., the 100-year flood and the probability of erosion to a specific depth) on exposure and risk, and the associated uncertainties (Bohlen and Erickson ).
Extensive experimental studies and field trials have shown that when applied correctly, in situ treatment via contaminant sequestration and immobilization using a sorbent material such as AC has progressed from an innovative sediment remediation approach to a proven, reliable technology ; many cases in the USA and EU [89, 90] have demonstrated to decrease the bioavailability of PCBs and PAHs in soils and sediments . Activated carbon reduces pore water concentrations by sequestration of the chemicals through adsorption to the AC surface and within its pore structure (Jonker & Koelmans ); in addition, AC has slow kinetics of contaminant desorption, which implies that fluxes of HOCs to the aqueous phase are low, and this limits contaminant mobility in the aquatic environment .
Passive sampling has been performed with different systems in which chemicals partition between the dissolved phase and a solid or liquid sampling phase without significantly affecting the soil–water or sediment–water equilibrium . Primary considerations for selecting a passive sampling method (PSM) for a specific application include clear delineation of measurement goals for C free, whether laboratory-based “ex situ” and/or field-based “in situ” application is desired, and ultimately which PSM is best-suited to fulfill the measurement objectives  (see Box 4).
Directly applying a thin layer of amendments (which potentially incorporates weighting or binding materials) to surface sediment, with or without initial mixing; and
Incorporating amendments into a premixed, blended cover material of clean sand or sediment, which is also applied to the sediment surface .
Summary of low and high-range unit costs of AC application (Patmont et al. )
Low-range unit cost
High-range unit cost
Facilitating AC placement using binder/weighting agentsb
Facilitating AC placement by blending with Sediment or sandb
Box 4: Passive sampling in the monitoring of dioxin under WFD and US EPA superfund
A recent review in ES&T  builds upon the findings of an ICES-workshop on the utility of passive sampling for the risk assessment on contaminated sediments  and gives the special focus on the comparison of situations under both the WFD and US EPA Superfund:
In Europe, the strict monitoring requirements laid down in the WFD and its daughter directives impede the implementation of passive sampling for regulatory purposes, whereas in the United States the use of passive sampling in the implementation of remediation processes for contaminated sediments has been encouraged by regulators . The latter is due to the recognition that passive sampling-based Cfree data, in particular of non-polar organic compounds, provides a better scientific basis for risk assessment, compared with conventional sampling and monitoring procedures. The actual use of passive sampling is limited by the lack of commercial laboratories performing passive sampler deployments and data reporting; in the near future, the scientific community will be crucial in providing guidance on the standardization of passive sampling methods .
On 1 July 2015, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) rendered its long-awaited judgment interpreting the EU Water Framework Directive 2000/60 in relation to projects such as the deepening of the Weser River in Northern Germany. The ECJ ruled that the environmental objectives of the WFD are not merely objectives for management planning with no link to or impact on individual projects; rather, Member States may not authorize projects which may cause a deterioration of the status of a surface water body unless derogation is granted . Regarding the term “deterioration” the Advocate General Jääskinen recommended a strict interpretation of the WFD with reference to a substance or quality component, without affecting a mandatory classification change .
The so far successful initiative of the German NGO “BUND,” just in time with the second river basin management plans, confirms the ability of the WFD to adopt concrete measures for both safeguarding a good state and for preventing the deterioration of surface waters. This coincides with the sustainable development strategy, an overriding environmental goal, which is mandatory for all policy sectors and measures within the European Union .
Under the Directive 2013/39/EC  the relevance of the biota-EQS criterion for a target achievement of Elbe-typical dioxins and dioxin-like PCBs is particularly high. It is predicted by Mohaupt et al.  that in the second River Basin Management Plan, the new and extended EQS-requirements will lead to a failure of the good chemical status in all water bodies; in the third RBMP the EQS values of the eight specific substances will continue to be exceeded, however, with less actual/target status.
Directive 2007/60/EC  on assessment and management of flood risks, relates to the special role of sediment-bound contaminants is due to the exponential increase of solid/pollutant loads with higher water velocities. The assessment of erosion stabilities was one of the major achievements of the Sediment Management Concept of the RBC-Elbe (RBC Elbe 2013 ; another was the development of criteria for the prioritization of measures).
The Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD, 2008/56/EC ) is similar to the WFD, in its stepwise implementation mode and with its main objective in the achievement of good environmental status (GES) in the marine environment by 2020. Between the source of a pollutant and its final receptor, the sea, we have the temporal storage in flood plains, lakes, artificial lakes behind dams, deltas, and man-made sedimentation traps (harbors); these are temporary receptors on the temporal scale of years to decades (Salomons ). Using scenarios and linking source to receptors has been carried out for prediction of sediment quality in harbors (Salomons and Gandrass ). In these cases the impact at the receptor could be defined as exceeding the standard for disposal at the sea (Heise et al. ); which is sufficient for the harbor manager . For example in the scenario for the Rhine sediment between the barrage Iffezheim and Rotterdam, the hexachlorobenzene (HCB) source can contribute to a failure of the objectives of the WFD in the Rhine Basin [194, 195] and may require additional measures for its control . All of these should be indications for a mandate to the RBC Elbe; however, no activities at the land–sea interface are reported in the Actualized RBMP (RBC Elbe 2015 ).
There is a characteristic difference between dioxin and other substances of the Directive 2013/39/EC, many of which can be reduced by technical measures on the basis of product regulations, approvals etc. . For dioxins as historical pollutants, the proactive option is mostly missing, and the aftercare depends on the solidarity among the members of the River Basin Community.1
In the costly approval process of the Port of Hamburg for deepening of the Elbe river course , involving translocation of additional 1 million m3/a fine-grained sediment from the tidal Elbe, the pollutant aspect already plays the most critical role . At the end of the day, under the stricter claims from the Marine Strategy Framework Directive compared to the WFD, the only convincing argument would be a significant reduction of the pollutant discharges, with special reference to the Elbe-typical PCDD/Fs, from the catchment area into the North Sea (Additional file 1).
As to the RBC Elbe, the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg, according to the principles of a coordinated management (WFD Art 4 and Appendix V ), has a claim against an upstream riparian, by name Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt, for conducting hydraulic engineering and sanitation measures, which are practically needed to eliminate and reduce specific pollutant inputs from upstream risk areas (Breuer 2008 ).
UF was responsible for the general design of the review and wrote the first draft of the manuscript. MB, KE, MB, RW, and WS contributed with specific information concerning their respective expertise. All authors helped revise the draft of the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
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