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European Commission - Press release

Environment: Commission takes France to Court for failing to combat water pollution by nitrates

Brussels, 27 February 2012 – The European Commission is referring France to the EU Court of Justice for failing to take measures to guarantee that water pollution by nitrates is addressed effectively. Although the Nitrates Directive has been in force since 1991, France has still not designated a number of zones that are vulnerable to nitrates pollution, and it has yet to adopt measures to effectively combat nitrates pollution in these zones. The Commission is therefore taking France to the EU Court of Justice, on the recommendation of Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik.

Nitrates are essential for plants to grow, and they are widely used as fertilisers, but excess levels cause severe water pollution. The Nitrates Directive aims to protect water quality across Europe by preventing nitrates from agricultural sources polluting ground and surface waters and by promoting the use of good farming practices. Member States have to designate areas that are vulnerable to nitrate pollution and adopt measures to reduce and prevent pollution in those areas. These must include closed periods when manure and chemical fertilizers cannot be spread, a capacity for storing manure when it cannot be spread, and limitations on fertilizer application.

Water quality data shows that some areas of France not currently designated are in fact vulnerable to pollution by nitrates. The Commission is therefore pressing for France to take action by designating more areas and designing appropriate plans to deal with the problem.

In addition, the legislation and action plans that have been adopted lack precision and have numerous shortcomings, including inadequate closed periods and insufficient limitations for manure and fertilizers application. The Commission sent a reasoned opinion to France on 26 October 2011 (see IP/11/1266), urging swift action to redress the situation, and France has agreed to amend its legislation, but slow progress and insufficient proposed changes have led the Commission to refer the case to the EU Court of Justice.


The Nitrates Directive (91/676/EEC) requires Member States to monitor their waters and identify those affected, or likely to be affected, by pollution caused by nitrates from agricultural sources. It requires Member States to designate as Nitrate Vulnerable Zones all known areas of land in their territories which drain into these waters and which contribute to pollution. They must also set up appropriate action programmes for these zones, aiming at preventing and reducing such pollution.

Excess levels of nitrates can damage freshwaters and the marine environment by promoting excessive growth of algae that chokes other life, a process known as eutrophication. Purifying excess nitrates from drinking water is also a very costly process.

Further information:

For current statistics on infringements in general:

More information on the Nitrates Directive:

See also:

More information on the Water Framework Directive:


Contacts :

Joe Hennon (+32 2 295 35 93)

Monica Westeren (+32 2 299 18 30)

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