Infringement procedure against Germany over nitrate pollution

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14 Nov

The European Commission is referring Germany to the Court of Justice of the EU because the country failed to take action on water pollution caused by nitrates. According to the Commission, groundwater and surface waters, including the Baltic Sea, are increasingly polluted with nitrates.

The lawsuit was already announced last April(1) and follows an opinion sent to the authorities in 2014(2) in which the Commission urged Germany to take stronger measures to combat water pollution caused by nitrates. 

“The Commission is accusing Berlin of not implementing strict enough measures against nitrate contamination over the past few years, especially when it comes to manure spreading and use of fertiliser in agriculture,” writes EurActiv(3). 

The Commission is concerned by the growing level of nitrates in German groundwaters and by the inaction of the Federal and the States governments that did not take measures to reduce nitrate contamination. 

Prevention of nitrate pollution is regulated by the Nitrate Directive. The directive forms an integral part of the Water Framework Directive (Directive 2000/60/EC) and is one of the key instruments in the protection of waters against agricultural pressures. 

Nitrates are widely used in agriculture as fertilisers. However, excess levels of nitrates can damage freshwaters, the marine environment and have a negative impact on human health. The Presence of nitrates in drinking waters above 50 mg/l can have considerable health impacts on populations, especially on pregnant women and babies. 

One of the main consequences of the excessive presence of nitrates in water is eutrophication, which is a threat to marine life and biodiversity and is currently a big problem in the Baltic Sea. 

EAA comment: EAA welcomes this move by the Commission. Eutrophication is a major problem for aquatic life in particular in the Baltic Sea, which is a fragile semi-enclosed sea. Oxygen depletion has been a widespread and recurring phenomenon in this sea for decades but recently (1999) a distinct regime shift has happened. Bottom areas with a total depletion in the level of oxygen have increased and are now constantly elevated to levels only observed occasionally before (4).

We would expect this German case to also have a positive impact on ongoing negotiations between the Commission and Denmark. The Commission suspects that a new Danish water management plan will – if implemented to the letter - be in violation of the Nitrate Directive as well as the Water Framework Directive and the Habitat Directive. (5; 6)


(1) - “Commission refers Germany to the Court of Justice of the EU over water pollution caused by nitrates”; European Commission press release 28 April 2016

(2) – Infringements package, July 2014: main decisions

(3) - “EU takes Germany to court over high nitrate levels”; EurActiv, 7 Nov 2016

(4) – HELCOM; Baltic Sea Environment Fact Sheet 2015, Published on 29 February 2016

(5) – “Minister: The farmers may be forced to environment protection” (in Danish); 10 Nov 2016

(6) – “EU warning could reopen the “Farming Packet” (In Danish); 10 May 2016

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