Environment group sues German government over nitrate threat

Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH) is taking Germany to court in a bid to stop potentially harmful nitrates entering the groundwater - substances known to endanger human health.

Environment group sues German government over nitrate threat
Fertilizer being applied in Schleswig-Holstein. Photo: DPA

Of all 28 EU member states, Germany has the second highest concentration of potentially harmful nitrates in its groundwater – second only to Malta.

That's according to German environment group DUH, which is taking Germany to court over nitrate use in agriculture.

Germany amended its fertilizer law in 2017, lowering the amount of nitrates that can be used for agricultural purposes.

But DUH claims the amended legislation still doesn't meet European-wide legal requirements on the protection of drinking water and groundwater.

The legislation does stipulate longer wait times between fertilizing and a “safe distance” to water sources from which the nitrates can be deployed.

Yet the amended law contains too many exceptions where nitrates can still be used, DUH managing director Sascha Müller-Kraenner said in Berlin on Tuesday.

Frustrated about lack of progress, the DUH has decided to sue, citing “absolutely no political will in the government” to consider further amending the law to meet EU-standards.

Nitrates usually enter the water system via agricultural slurry.

They are important for plant growth, but over-fertilization can lead to residues accumulating in the water that can be harmful to humans and the environment.

Infants under six months old are in particular are prone to so-called methemoglobinemia, which can lead to oxygen deprivation in the body. In waterways it can also cause algae to bloom and starve fish of oxygen.

In its 2016 Nitrate Report, the German government admitted that 28 percent of the monitoring stations in agricultural areas exceed EU groundwater limits.

German authorities also found that phosphorus was above the mandated level 65 percent of all points set up at rivers and lakes, while also affecting algae in the North and the Baltic Seas. The next report is not due until 2020.

Measurements on the stricter fertilizer rules adopted last year – which carry different upper limits depending on the type of fertilizer used – are not yet available.


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Young activists take German states to court over climate inaction

Campaigners began a legal challenge against five German regions on Monday to force them to take stronger action on climate change, emboldened by a landmark recent court ruling in favour of environmental protection.

Young activists take German states to court over climate inaction
Demonstrators from the Fridays for Future movement protest in Gießen, Hesse, with a sign saying "No wishy-washy, no climate lashing". Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Frank Rumpenhorst

The plaintiffs are basing their case on a sensational verdict by Germany’s constitutional court in April which found that Germany’s plans to curb CO2 emissions were insufficient to meet the targets of the Paris climate agreement and placed an unfair burden on future generations.

In a major win for activists, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s federal government then brought forward its date for carbon neutrality by five years to 2045, and raised its 2030 target for greenhouse gas reductions.


On Monday, 16 children and young adults began proceedings against the regions of Hesse, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Saarland, with support of environmental NGO Environmental Action Germany (DUH).

They are charging that none of the states targeted by the legal action have passed sufficiently strong climate legislation at the local level, according to DUH.

“The federal government can’t succeed on its own,” lead lawyer Remo Klinger said in a press conference, highlighting state competence in the area of transport.

DUH worked closely together with the youth climate movement Fridays For Future to find activists willing to front the challenges, the group said.

Seventeen-year-old plaintiff Alena Hochstadt said the western state of Hesse, known for its Frankfurt banking hub, had always been her home but she feared having “no future here”.

Concern about the risk of “floods, storms and droughts” led her and other campaigners to seek “a legal basis for binding climate protection”.

READ ALSO: Climate change made German floods ‘more likely and more intense’

Hesse’s ministers for climate and the economy said they were “surprised” by the announcement.

“DUH clearly has not yet understood that we in Hesse are well ahead,” Priska Hinz and Tarek Al-Wazir said in a joint statement, drawing attention to an energy future law from 2012, before the Paris climate agreement.

In July, DUH-supported activists took the states of Bavaria, North Rhine-Westphalia and Brandenburg to court on similar grounds.