By William Horsley
BBC European affairs correspondent
The European Parliament in Strasbourg has voted for proposed EU-wide laws aimed at upholding the principle that the polluter pays for environmental damage.
Disasters like the Prestige spill have stirred public opinion
Environmental groups are hailing the vote - the first by the whole parliament on the proposed "polluter pays" legislation - as a major success.
But business leaders say if the draft directive becomes law the survival of many European companies is at stake.
They lobbied hard for the planned EU-wide laws to give companies two main types of exemption from liability:
- if they operate under an official permit, and
and if they use state-of-the-art technology
But members of the European parliament voted to remove both these defences.
They also voted to oblige companies to take out full insurance cover, or give guarantees that they can pay for the cost of environmental clean-ups.
The newly amended draft of the so-called "Environmental Liability Directive" must now be considered by EU environment ministers and will only become law when the Council of Ministers and the Parliament have agreed on a final text.
But this vote is a clear signal that companies dealing with toxic materials, or operating businesses which carry risks for the environment, must expect in future to work under tougher conditions.
The EU has been spurred into action by the public feeling aroused by incidents in recent years.
- The devastating oil spills from the Erica and Prestige tankers, off the coasts of France and Spain
The cyanide pollution in the Tisza river in Hungary and Romania in the year 2000
The widespread pollution from the Donana metal mine in south-west Spain in 1998
Often local taxpayers have to pay the main cost of the clean-up from oil, chemical or mining accidents rather than those responsible.
The European Parliament has decided that the "polluter pays" principle should apply in two much-disputed areas: transport of materials at sea, and nuclear pollution.
But the effect of any new EU law in those areas would be limited by the rules laid down in existing international conventions.