Netherlands in the dock over nitrate pollution

Commission increases pressure against Dutch fertiliser use accounting system

The European Commission is to take the Netherlands to the European Court of Justice for failure to implement the 1991 nitrates directive. Announced today, the move has been taken despite a Dutch government decision last week to approve stricter controls on the application of fertilisers on agricultural land.

The Netherlands has designated its entire territory a nitrate vulnerable zone. Under the terms of the directive, it should therefore have implemented an action plan to reduce nitrate levels in groundwater from 1995. However, the Commission complains that the Dutch response, known as Minas, was only started in 1997 and is "deficient in several ways."

The Minas scheme uses a sophisticated accounting system for inputs and outputs of fertilisers on farms to measures losses of nitrates and phosphates to the environment. Fines are levied on farmers exceeding maximum permitted loss levels.

However, the Commission says Minas does not satisfy the requirements of the directive because it does not lay down per hectare maximum levels for the application of animal manure and because its fines are "not dissuasive." The system is not preventing "high losses" of nutrients and "cannot avoid" the pollution of groundwater, it says.

The Commission also alleges that there are no clear limits on chemical fertilisation for each type of crop - especially important in the Netherlands, where application levels are twice the northern European average. Moreover, it says, buffer strips protecting water courses are very narrow, and the scheme does not take sufficient account of climatic conditions and rainfall.

The Dutch government last week approved a revision of Minas hastily proposed after the European Commission sent it a "reasoned opinion" over the nitrates directive last year (ENDS Daily 14 September 1999). The new scheme will permit lower nutrient losses and imposes much higher fines. Crucially, however, it still does not set a maximum manure application level per hectare as demanded by the directive, only an averaged national one.

The Commission and the government are still discussing the finer points of the new scheme, which the Commission said was a "promising step in the right direction" that "may have far-reaching consequences." However, it added that it "still left the main problems...unresolved."

Follow Up:
European Commission, tel: +32 2 299 1111; Dutch agriculture ministry, tel: +31 70 378 4062.

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