Directive Regarding Protection of Water Against Pollution From Nitrates (Nitrate Directive) (1991/676)

Title: Directive Regarding Protection of Water Against Pollution From Nitrates (Nitrate Directive)

Category: EU Directive

Date: 1991

Reference: 91/676/EEC [Full text]

General Description:

In December 1991, the Council of the EU adopted a directive, often known as the Nitrates Directive, concerning the protection of waters against pollution caused by nitrate from agricultural sources. This directive recognises that whilst the use of nitrogen-containing fertilisers and manure is necessary for EU agriculture, any over-use of fertilisers and manure constitutes an environmental risk. It emphasises that common action is needed to control the problem arising from intensive livestock production, and that agricultural policy must take greater account of environmental policy.

The objectives of the directive are to ensure that the nitrate concentration in freshwater and groundwater supplies does not exceed the limit of 50 mg NO 3- per litre, as imposed by the EU Drinking Water Directive, and to control the incidence of Eutrophication. Having set the overall targets, the directive requires individual Member States, within prescribed limits, to draw up their own plans for meeting them.

As a general measure to maintain water quality, Member States should, by December 1993, have drawn up a Code of Good Agricultural Practice to be implemented by farmers on a voluntary basis. They are also charged with introducing a programme to promote the code.

Furthermore, Member States are required to designate zones vulnerable to water pollution from nitrogen compounds. This process should also have been completed by the end of 1993, and the zones notified to the Commission within six months. The criteria for identifying vulnerable zones are laid down in the directive, and there is a requirement for the areas included to be reviewed at least every four years.

Within two years of designating vulnerable zones, Member States must establish action programmes designed to prevent pollution within those zones. The action programmes must be implemented within a further four years. It could, therefore, be December 1999 before all the measures are fully operational.

The measures to be included in the action programme are defined in an annex to the directive. These include the application of fertilisers in accordance with good agricultural practice and, in particular, taking account of site-specific factors, including the soil type, the nitrogen requirement of the crop and the various sources of nitrogen available. The measures also include a maximum limit for the addition of livestock manure equivalent to 170 kg nitrogen (N) per hectare.

The full impact of the directive on existing agricultural production will only become clear when Member States have declared the area(s) of land which will be classified as vulnerable zones and the measures which will be implemented as part of the action programmes. The fertiliser industry welcomes the principles of the directive, which will guide users of mineral fertilisers.

Concentrations of nitrate above the limit of 50 mg NO3- per litre may cause infantile methaemoglobinaemia and health authorities will be required to monitor for the condition where they are informed that nitrate levels may exceed this limit.

Pertinence to Agriculture: Agricultural Pollution, Water, Nitrate

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