EU threatens to take France to court over algae

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The European Commission has asked France to address the uncontrolled expansion of green algae on its coasts, threatening to take the country before the European Court of Justice if the response is deemed insufficient in the next months.

According to two Commission orders sent out 27 October, France needs "to take stronger measures to combat water pollution caused by nitrates" and identify all vulnerable areas. The EU executive notes that France's rules on the spreading of manure and nitrogen-rich fertiliser are not strict enough.

"We expect France, like any other member state, to meet its obligations under EU environmental law and to adopt effective plans to prevent nitrates pollution," Environment Commissioner Janez Poto?nik told EURACTIV. 

"The Commission has a duty to ensure that EU legislation is respected and will not hesitate to bring member states before the court if necessary," he added.

Already in June 2007, the Court of Justice had threatened France on the same issue with a €28 million fine, which the country was ultimately not made to pay.

On 10 October French Environment Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet issued a decree revising the country's action plans to protect waters from nitrates. This decree had been criticised by environmental groups, saying it increased the ceilings for the spreading of nitrates on farms.

French Green MEP Sandrine Bélier, who had recently petitioned the Parliament to pressure the Commission on the issue, accused the French government of using delaying tactics.

"[The government] has announced a certain number of measures to be taken in 2012, but without any guarantees … The entire process is being pushed back to June 2012, therefore after the [presidential] elections," she said.

Noting that the European rules in question date from 1991, Bélier added: "We are 20 years late. That's starting to be a long time."

For its part, the Commission considers that "France has agreed to amend its legislation but progress and the proposed changes are insufficient."

Algae in Brittany

The Commission has simultaneously asked information from the French authorities specifically on policies against green algae in Brittany.

In a 17 July letter, the Commission stressed that this year the phenomenon was "of unprecedented magnitude", given that the amount of green algae collected by 30 June on the coasts of Brittany (25,000 m³) was double that picked up at by same time last year.

The Commission further asked for an updated appraisal of all the regulatory, administrative, financial and other measures against green algae, accompanied by a 10-page annex of questions.

France had obtained an additional month to respond but nonetheless missed the 21 October deadline, ultimately replying to the Commission on 23 October. The Commission's official response is expected within a few weeks.

Paris has long been considered a laggard in implementing EU water quality rules. In addition to threat of a fine in June 2007, France was convicted in March 2001 by the Court of Justice for the excessive concentration of nitrates in waters to be used for human consumption.

The French ministries of the Environment and Agriculture defended themselves from the Commission's allegations in a press release.

"Without waiting for the two reasoned opinions from the European Commission," the ministries have been "engaged since several months in a vast reform of the application of this directive, in order to improve the readability, territorial coherence and effectiveness of its measures and reduce further the risks of pollution."

High concentrations of nitrates in water cause the wide spreading of green algae, whcih feed on them. These algae then land on beaches, defacing them and emitting toxic gases during decomposition.

This attracted substantial media attention in France over last summer as dozens of wild boars were found dead because of the algae. A number of French beaches were closed in August 2011 for reasons of public health related to algae.

  • Late Dec.: Deadline for France's response to the Commission on the protection of water from nitrates pollution.

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