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Brussels, 4 April 2000

Water pollution by nitrates: Commission takes further legal steps against Luxembourg, Finland, Portugal and United Kingdom

The European Commission is to take further legal action against Luxembourg, Finland, Portugal and the United Kingdom for non-respect of the European Union's Nitrates Directive. These steps are the latest in the Commission's concerted efforts to reduce water pollution from agriculture. The Commission will take Luxembourg to the European Court of Justice, Finland and Portugal will receive a first warning letter, and the UK will be sent a second warning letter.

Commenting on the decisions, Margot Wallström, Environment Commissioner said: "It is clear that, right across the Community, increased action is needed to curb nitrate pollution from agriculture. I strongly urge Member States to give this environmental challenge the attention it deserves". The Nitrates Directive (Council Directive 91/676/EEC concerning the protection of waters against pollution caused by nitrates from agricultural sources) aims to curb the introduction of excessive levels of nitrates into surface waters and groundwaters from agricultural fertilizers and wastes. Excessive nitrate levels cause undesirable ecological changes in water and are a factor in harmful algal blooms. They also have adverse public health implications.

The directive required Member States to carry out monitoring of surface waters and groundwater, identify nitrate-polluted waters, and designate vulnerable zones (i.e. zones draining into nitrate-polluted waters) by December 1993. Action programmes for such zones were required to be established by December 1995 (December 1999 in the case of Finland) in order to control nitrate pollution from agricultural sources. Member States have the option of applying these action programmes throughout their territory.

In the case of Luxembourg, the Commission has decided to make an application to the European Court of Justice under Article 226 of the EC Treaty. The Commission's concerns centre on the failure of Luxembourg to comply with the Directive in relation to the content of action programmes and in relation to the ongoing monitoring of such programmes. In particular, the Luxembourg measures fail to adequately reflect detailed requirements on the need for balance between crop needs and the availability of nitrates from different sources.

Finland has chosen to apply the Nitrates Directive throughout its territory. The Commission's decision is to send a Letter of Formal Notice (first warning letter) addressing weaknesses in the Finnish legislation used to give effect to requirements of the Directive on the content of action programmes. In particular, the Finnish legislation fails to adequately ensure the minimum capacity of storage vessels for livestock manure (to ensure that they can store manure throughout the period when land-spreading is prohibited); there is no binding prohibition on autumn spreading of manures and restrictions on land-spreading during the growing season are not sufficiently clear and precise.

The Commission has also decided to send a Letter of Formal Notice to Portugal on the basis that the Portuguese action programmes fail to meet the requirements of the Directive on the content of such programmes.

In the case of the United Kingdom, the Commission has decided to send a Reasoned Opinion (second warning letter) arising out of the investigation of a complaint concerning the Ythan estuary in Scotland. This investigation led the Commission to conclude that the United Kingdom had wrongly omitted to designate the estuary as a vulnerable zone. In particular, the Commission noted evidence that the estuary was eutrophic and that its catchment was dominated by agricultural activity. The UK authorities have now accepted this and are in the process of designating the Ythan catchment as a vulnerable zone. However, final designation is still awaited.

The decisions taken reflect the widespread gaps in implementation of this key directive, while at the same time marking the Commission's continuing determination to achieve improvements across the Community. Currently, infringement proceedings are open against most Member States for non-compliance with the provisions of the Nitrates Directive.

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