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France Faces Massive EU Fine

Wednesday 01 August 2007

France is facing the prospect of a massive fine from the EU Commission for its failure to clean up river pollution in Brittany.

The affair has been going on since the mid 70s, when France was found guilty of failing to respect an EU directive on nitrate pollution in rivers.

The Commission has now decided it has had enough of trying to persuade France to implement the directive in full, so has called upon the European Court of Justice to impose a fine of €28 million, with a further penalty of €118,000 per day in the event of continuing breach.

The main source of the problem is manure from livestock being washed off agricultural land into rivers.

Although Brittany contains only 6.5% of the agricultural surface in France, it is the leading agricultural region of the country, with 43% of the national production of turkeys, 34% of chickens, 15% of cows, and 56% of pork. Manure spreading on fields is widely practised by livestock farmers.

In trying to tackle the problem these past 25 years, the government has faced resistance from the very powerful agricultural lobby, who feared their livelihood would be at risk if additional controls to reduced intensive livestock production and improve practices were imposed.

Nevertheless, significant progress has been achieved, with 28 of 37 previously offending river catchment areas now complying with the directive.

In a somewhat desperate attempt to stave off the fine, the government has decided to close four of the remaining sites, a response which local environmental groups have called one of 'breaking the thermometer rather than reducing the fever'.

Hitherto, the government has attempted to solve the problem with an offer of financial compensation to farmers if they reduced manure spreading. However, few farmers have taken up the voluntary offer, with the result that the government has now decided that, with effect from 2008, the financial package and its controls will become compulsory.

The level of pollution in rivers has meant that France has had to invest heavily in water treatment installations, the costs of which fall mainly on individual consumers. Consumer groups have pointed out that, whilst farmers consume over 80% of the water, they pick up only 4% of the water bill, including that for investment in water storage and treatment plants.

Although there may be no respite in sight for consumers facing higher water bills, it does finally begin to appear that France is starting to take seriously the issue of environmental pollution. The new government has established a powerful new Environment Ministry, with a senior Minister in charge, and has committed itself to a strong programme of environmental action.

Of concern to consumer groups is the fact that the equally powerful Ministry of Agriculture remains intact, leading many critics to suggest that the agrochemical interests of the country will continue to be able to resist any programme of change.

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