Nitrate pollution: Umwelthilfe sues states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Lower Saxony

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In North Rhine-Westphalia and Lower Saxony, nitrate pollution in groundwater sometimes exceeds the permissible level by threefold. Deutsche Umwelthilfe, an environmental association, has now filed a complaint against the governments of both states.

According to Sascha Müller-Kraenner, the Managing Director of Deutsche Umwelthilfe, the lawsuit is expressly not directed against agriculture and farmers, but against political decision-makers who have failed to act for decades.

This is particularly evident in the area that the complaint specifically concerns: the Ems region, where the groundwater is in poor condition due to over-fertilisation on two thirds of the total area. The permissible limit is 50 mg nitrate per litre, but in some cases it is considerably more than three times as much.

Deutsche Umwethilfe is using a tried and tested method in the lawsuit: it is demanding in court that Lower Saxony and North Rhine-Westphalia submit a concrete catalogue of measures to comply with the permissible limit.

Fundamental change required in agriculture

In order to reduce nitrate levels in groundwater in the Ems region, the association calls for a massive restructuring of agriculture with more organic farming and significantly fewer animals per hectare. According to their calculations, 25 million fewer chickens would have to be slaughtered in the region each year and 370,000 fewer pigs.

The authorities at the state and federal level are failing, the environmentalists complain, and the price we pay is high. For the environment, but also for the consumer, says Olaf Bandt of the Bund für Umwelt und Naturschutz (BUND), whose organisation supports the lawsuit: “At the moment, the water supply companies across Germany are estimating expenditure of 767 million euros to remove nitrate from groundwater because it is unsuitable for drinking water”. In the end, the consumers pays with their water bill.

North Rhine-Westphalia’s Environment Minister Ursula Heinen-Esser rejected the criticism harshly:

“For months we have been working on nothing other than measures to actually reduce nitrate pollution. And the fact that hundreds and thousands of farmers are taking to the streets here has something to do with the fact that these measures are being worked on. I completely fail to understand the positive effect such a lawsuit could have at this point.”

Deutsche Umwelthilfe considers the lawsuit necessary because it believes that the current negotiations will not produce enough results to actually significantly reduce groundwater pollution. After today’s filing, the organisation expects that it will take two to two and a half years for a final decision to be reached.

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