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Brussels, 24 January 2013
Environment: Commission takes Poland to Court over nitrates and water pollution
The European Commission is referring Poland to the EU Court of Justice for failing to guarantee that water pollution by nitrates is addressed effectively. Europe has strong legislation on pollution from nitrates, and although the requirements have been applicable in Poland since 2004, too little has been done. Poland has still has not designated a sufficient number of zones that are vulnerable to nitrates pollution, and measures to effectively combat nitrates pollution in these zones have not been adopted. On the recommendation of Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik, the Commission is therefore taking Poland to the EU Court of Justice.
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 for example 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.
Almost all of Poland's waters drain into the Baltic Sea, an area which is already suffering from excess levels of nitrates. International data indicates that the Polish contribution to the overall nitrogen load in the Baltic Sea is significant, and that most of it comes from agriculture. Only a very small part of the Polish territory, however, has been designated as nitrate vulnerable zones. This is why the Commission is pressing Poland to take action and to designate more areas, and to adopt appropriate plans to deal with the problem.
In addition, the legislation and action plans that have been adopted for designated zones lack precision and have numerous shortcomings, including inadequate closed periods and insufficient limitations for manure and fertilizers application. The Commission sent a reasoned opinion on this matter on 24 November 2011, urging swift action to redress the situation, and Poland 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.
Directive 91/676/EEC on the protection of waters against pollution caused by nitrates from agricultural sources requires Member States to monitor their waters and identify those affected, or likely to be affected, by pollution. 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.
More information on the Nitrates Directive:
More information on the Water Framework Directive:
For current statistics on infringements in general:
On the general infringement procedure, see also MEMO/12/12
On the January infringement package decisions, see see MEMO/13/22