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A glass being filled with tap water. Óscar Chamorro
EU court fines Spain over nitrate levels in water
Environment

EU court fines Spain over nitrate levels in water

Eight regions have failed to comply with the EU's monitoring directive

Tuesday, 19 March 2024

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The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has fined the Spanish government for failing to control levels of nitrate in both surface water and groundwater in eight autonomous communities.

With this decision the EU court upholds the European Commission in its complaint filed in 2022 against the Kingdom of Spain after its "failure to comply with the regulations to combat this pollution linked to agriculture and livestock farming and which damages bodies of water".

The EU regulation obliges member states to monitor their water sources and identify those affected or likely to be affected by the problem. A recent report by environmental group Ecologistas en Acción revealed that last year nearly 200 municipalities had nitrate levels above the standard. However, this case, which has now been sentenced, dates back to 2015, when Brussels opened a case against Spain, which served as an official warning for non-compliance with the regulations which have been in force since 1991.

Livestock farming

With this decision, the CJEU, which obliges Spain to pay the costs of the proceedings, considers that the Balearic Islands, Madrid and Valencia have failed to comply with the obligation to designate eight water catchment areas as vulnerable zones by runoff (surface water) or infiltration (groundwater).

In addition, the EU court has fined Spain for failing to comply with the provision of the nitrates directive which requires it to establish "all the necessary mandatory measures in the action programmes".

Greenpeace's head of agriculture and livestock, Luis Ferreirim, warned: "This pollution will not be reduced unless intensive livestock farming is reduced, it is as clear as that. Today's fine must be the definitive push to take action and get to the root of the problem: changing the agro-industrial model. There are no more sticking plasters."

"We take note of what the judgement says and we are already working with the regions to implement what the Court of Justice of the European Union tells us"

In addition, the CJEU ruled that the Government has also failed to adopt the additional measures or reinforced actions necessary in relation to nitrate pollution in Aragón, Castilla-La Mancha, Castilla y León and Murcia. "We take note of what the ruling says and we are already working with the regions to implement what the Court of Justice of the European Union tells us," said Minister for Ecological Transition and the Demographic Challenge Teresa Ribera.

Greenpeace denounces that, since the Nitrates Directive was approved 30 years ago, successive Spanish governments and other competent authorities have allowed the increased use of fertilisers and the uncontrolled intensification of livestock farming, the main causes of this pollution and perfectly identified in the original text of the directive.

Eutrophication of water

The EU directive focuses on protecting water quality and preventing pollution from agricultural and livestock sources. "Excessive levels of nitrates can damage freshwaters and the marine environment through a process known as eutrophication, by stimulating excessive growth of algae that smother other forms of life and kill fish in lakes and rivers," the European Commission said in opening proceedings against the Spanish government.

After several warnings, Spain adopted a new state regulation in the form of Royal Decree 47/2022 of 18 January, which establishes more stringent thresholds for designating vulnerable zones and identifying nitrate-affected waters. Among other issues, this regulation modified the limit for considering groundwater as contaminated, reducing it from 50 mg/l to 37 mg/l.

"In a period of aggravated and prolonged drought like the one we are experiencing, groundwater is of vital importance. However, due to the carelessness of some and the greed of others, we see how we cannot use them for human consumption - a priority use established in the legislation - due to the high concentration of nitrates. Catalonia is a clear example of this. Despite having an abundance of groundwater under its feet, it cannot use it," concludes Ferreirim.

Excessive levels of nitrates can damage freshwater and the marine environment through a process known as "eutrophication", by stimulating excessive growth of algae that smother other life forms. They can also lead to an increase in certain species such as cyanobacteria capable of secreting toxins (microcystins).

In the case of health, state legislation sets the maximum threshold at 50 mg/l. Exceeding this limit "should be considered as a possible non-compliance", reflects the Real Decreto 140/2003.

According to data provided by the Ministry of Health and collected by Ecologistas en Acción, at least 214,851 citizens were affected by episodes of nitrate contamination in drinking water in 2022. "In all likelihood, the figure is higher," warn Ecologistas en Acción. "The cause of this pollution is well known: mainly industrial agriculture and livestock farming," warns Greenpeace Spain.

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