Europe takes Spain to court over slurry contamination

The excess nitrates that pollute groundwater in most of the country come from intensive livestock farming and agriculture

2 min
A pig farm in Ventalló, in an archive image

A year ago came the ultimatum from Europe for Spain to curb water pollution caused by nitrates from intensive livestock farming and agriculture. The excessively lukewarm reaction when applying palliative measures in some areas has led the European Commission (EC) to go a step further and take the serious problem of slurry to court. Spain will have to respond to the Court of Justice of the EU for non-compliance with the EU directive: "The efforts of the Spanish authorities have been insufficient and unsatisfactory," says the EC in a statement.

Alarming episodes such as those seen in the Mar Menor, where nitrate pollution has caused massive fish mortalities in recent years, are perhaps the clearest evidence of a problem that affects much of Spain (including Catalonia). In the case of Murcia, the boom in intensive irrigation agriculture and its associated fertilisers are causing a process of eutrophication (excess nutrients that causes surges in algae suffocating other forms of life) that led to the collapse of the sea. Murcia is one of the four regions – alongside Aragon, Castilla-La Mancha and Castilla y León – where Europe is asking for "additional measures", noting that those taken so far have been "insufficient". In addition, the EC also sets the spotlight on Extremadura, Galicia, the Balearic Islands, Valencia, Castilla y León and the Canary Islands for not having properly delimited and identified the contaminated areas where they have to act.

The exponential growth of livestock farming helps to explain in large part why the problem of slurry has not stopped in Spain. Castilla y Leon and Aragon are the regions where pig farming has grown the most in the last decade and, in the case of Aragon, it has reached 8.5 million pigs and is already the region with the most pigs, ahead of Catalonia's 8.1 million, according to a recent report by Greenpeace.

Catalonia, 40% of affected territory

In fact, Catalonia is also one of the regions which is most affected by slurry pollution: 40% of the country's surface is within what are called vulnerable areas due to the presence of nitrates. In this case, however, the EC does not include it in the CJEU proceedings. It is possible that it is waiting to see the effect of the measures it has implemented to curb pollution. The Generalitat passed a four-year extension to the moratorium on new pig farms or expanding existing ones in the 66 municipalities with higher presence of nitrates in the water, as well as limiting new farms to 600 cows.

The appeal of the EC in the European court is a step that comes after several touches of attention to Spain. The first serious touch was a letter of summons to comply with the EU water quality directive in 2018. The second reminder came in June last year, with a reasoned opinion that pointed out twelve territories where action had to be taken to reverse the pollution (only Asturias and Cantabria were spared from this warning). The EU's patience, however, has run out and now it will be the CJEU who will have to assess the situation and consider, at the end of the proceedings, sanctions for Spain over a problem that threatens "public health, the environment and climate neutrality", as it recalls in a statement.