The European Commission has lost patience with Germany over the high concentration of nitrate fertilizer in its ground water. Taxpayers could now end up paying hundreds of millions of euros in fines.
The European Commission is finally making good on a long-standing threat and taking the German government to the European Court of Justice for breaking the 1991 directive on nitrate concentration in its ground water.
The move will increase pressure on the German government to pass a law tightening controls on nitrate fertilizer use that has been dragging through the legislature for nearly two years. But, if the country loses the court case, taxpayers will end up paying fines of several hundred million euros, according to Wilhelm Priesmeier, agriculture spokesman for the Social Democratic Party.
Nitrates are vital for modern agriculture and widely used as fertilizers, but the excess promotes the growth of algae in freshwater, which chokes other forms of marine life.
When they seep into groundwater, nitrates are also damaging to human health - especially for children and pregnant women - and, according to both environmental organizations and the EU, purifying nitrate-contaminated water is very costly for public authorities.
In a statement released Thursday, the European Commission showed signs of impatience. The letter said the commission had sent "a reasoned opinion" to the German authorities in July 2014 and that "figures submitted by Germany in 2012 and several recent reports from the German authorities show worsening nitrate pollution in groundwater and surface waters, including the Baltic Sea."
"Despite these trends, Germany has not taken sufficient additional measures to effectively address nitrates pollution and revise its relevant legislation to comply with the EU rules on nitrates," the statement read.
Christian Rehmer, agriculture spokesman for the German environmental agency BUND, said the government had long known that laws were not sufficient to protect the environment. "We have around 200 kilos of nitrates applied per hectare (180 pounds per acre), and about 100 kilos of it is excess," he told DW. "The plants don't take that in, and it is not stored in the earth, and instead it enters the waters or the atmosphere."
Rehmer said there were ways to fertilize fields that caused less excess than others - there is a big difference between leaving fertilizer to settle on the surface and plowing it in, for instance - but this has always been poorly regulated in Germany. "The EU Commission said, 'What you're doing is not enough,' and began a breach-of-contract proceeding," he said.
The DBV is a powerful farmer lobby in Germany
Along with the German Farmers' Association (DBV), the Christian Social Union - the conservative party that controls the Agriculture Ministry - had "stood on the brakes" when it came to introducing any reforms, Rehmer said.
Slowing things down
Both authorities deny that they are dragging their heels. "Today's submittal of the lawsuit is surprising, considering that there is currently a constructive exchange going on between the EU Commission and the government over the draft of a new fertilizer regulation," the DBV wrote in a statement that went on to claim that the reform proposals currently on the table "adequately implement the EU's standards."
Similarly, the Agriculture Ministry also claimed that it had been working on the new regulations and added that the EU had given it a notification deadline of June 22 to "clear up individual points" in its proposals. "The remaining few critical points of the EU Commission are currently being assessed, and we're searching for solutions together with all involved," ministry officials wrote in a statement emailed to DW.
The Environment Ministry is involved in discussions over the new nitrate regulation, and a spokesman told DW in an email: "The draft of the fertilizer regulation already contains important and far-reaching improvements for environmental protection."