Rome sets sights on complete revision of nitrates legislation

Maurizio Martina [Francesco Pierantoni/Flickr]

Following the European Commission’s termination of an infringement procedure against Italy, the country has updated its rules relating to the use of animal waste in agriculture and still retains hopes of amending the EU’s Nitrates Directive. EURACTIV Italy reports.

The newly-approved decree includes exemptions for nitrate-vulnerable zones such as Lombardy and Piedmont, which were approved by Brussels on Monday (1 March). Pending final Commission approval, the exemptions will be implemented in 2016. Minister for Agriculture Maurizio Martina also confirmed that Italy’s next objective is a full revision of the EU directive on nitrates.

According to EU Directive 676 of 1991 on nitrate pollution, member states are obligated to monitor nitrate levels in their waterways, develop action plans to protect rivers and lakes and designate areas that are prone to pollution from agricultural fertilisers. The list of at-risk areas has to be revised periodically and data on water quality has to be monitored and conveyed to the Commission.

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Some EU countries took the decision to provide across the board protection, while in 2006 Italy faced accusations of imposing overly stringent criteria on vulnerable zones that were located in pastoral-intensive areas. Additionally, in 2013, a decree authorising the annual distribution of 340 kg of nitrogen per hectare was criticised for flouting EU laws that dictate the maximum amount cannot exceed 170 kg.

By adopting stricter action plans in the industry-intensive Po basin and repealing the offending law, the infringement procedures against Italy were dropped. Rome has also updated its rules on the use of animal waste and digestates.

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The objective of the new decree is to combine environmental sustainability with agricultural production and diversification of activities, in order to boost incomes and address climate change through the use of renewable energies. The legislation allows digestate produced from anaerobic digestion and a number of other waste products, such as vegetable scraps, to be used, with the exception of material produced in contaminated or polluted sites.

The Northern Italian regions of Lombardy and Piedmont asked for the annual upper limit of nitrate use per hectare to be raised from 170 kg to 250 kg in vulnerable zones, based on scientific data that demonstrated that there is a low risk of damage to groundwater quality. The exemptions will apply until the end of 2019 and were confirmed by the Commission’s Environment Directorate-General, pending final approval.

“After years of impasse, we now await the Commission’s final decision, so that we can implement the measures,” said Martina, emphasising that the request of Lombardy and Piedmont was based on studies carried out by environmental research agency ISPRA, carried out in the Po basin and the Venetian plain.

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A 2014 ISPRA study carried out in the regions of Emilia Romagna, Friuli Venezia Giulia, Lombardy and the Veneto of the impact of nitrates on natural habitat only covered 10% of the regions’ total area (the figure was slightly higher in Piedmont, 19%). The following year, another study by the same agency concluded that nitrate contamination depended on numerous sources, ranging from the civil society to the industrial and agricultural sectors.

Final consent from the European executive would only be a stepping stone for Rome, as Martina explained that, “In conjunction with Minister Galletti (Minister for the Environment), we will continue to work towards the common goal of revising the Nitrates Directive, to bring it in line with the latest scientific evidence.”

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