Brussels, 20 June 2013
Environment: Commission takes Greece to Court over nitrate pollution
On the recommendation of Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik, the European Commission is referring Greece 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, Greece has still not designated a number of zones vulnerable to nitrates pollution, and it has yet to adopt measures to effectively combat nitrates pollution in these zones.
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 Greece not currently designated are in fact vulnerable to pollution by nitrates. The Commission is therefore pressing Greece to take action by designating more areas and designing appropriate plans to deal with the problem.
The Commission sent a reasoned opinion to Greece on 1 October 2012, urging swift action to redress the situation. In response to this Reasoned Opinion, Greece designated some additional Nitrates Vulnerable Zones. Although this new designation is a step in the right direction it does not address all grievances as identified by the Commission, as other areas still need to be designated as vulnerable zones, or have only been partially designated. The Commission has therefore decided to refer the case to the EU Court of Justice.
The Nitrates Directive 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 a process known as eutrophication, promoting excessive growth of algae that chokes other life and leading to effects such as the death of fish in lakes and rivers. Purifying excess nitrates from drinking water is also a very costly process.
On implementation of Community environmental legislation:
For more information on infringement procedures: http://ec.europa.eu/eu_law/infringements/infringements_en.htm
On the June infringement package decisions, see MEMO/13/583
On the general infringement procedure, see also MEMO/12/12