The EU’s top court has ruled that Germany is in breach of EU law by not cleaning up its act on water pollution caused by farm fertiliser run-off.

The case began in 2016 when the European Commission referred the German government to the EU Court of Justice over non-compliance with the Nitrates Directive – an EU law on water protection that sets limits on excess manure spreading in vulnerable areas.

Now Germany could have to pay out billions in fines.

Environmentalists have been warning of the impact of nitrate contamination of groundwater for years as excess nitrates in the environment damages nature and poses health risks for humans.

It was way back in 2012 when the extent of Germany’s nitrate pollution problem was highlighted in a German Environment Ministry report which stated water quality was getting worse not better – against the goals of EU rules on water protection, the Water Framework Directive and the Nitrates Directive. The latest figures from 2016 show that 28% of the 700 measurement German stations related to agriculture still breach the limits.

A recent report from Friends of the Earth Germany also found that 92% of all surface water in Germany is polluted with chemicals as a direct result of farm activity, putting freshwater species in danger.

After the Commission began the case, in 2017 Germany adapted how it implemented the EU rules which the German Farmers Union say means the ruling relates to an “outdated” regulation.

Speaking to German television channel ZDF, Bernard Krüsken the Secretary General of Deutscher Bauernverband said:

“The new German fertilisers rules put massive pressure on farmers and many have to make great efforts to fulfill the criteria, but this is good and right and we stand up for it.”

However, environmental groups dispute the extent to which the change to the law made a difference to water quality.

Sascha Müller-Kraenner, Managing Director of DUH, said:

“Even the revised law on fertilisers still contains an amount of exceptions and loopholes, which prevent compliance with European legislation for the protection of drinking water. Germany has not met the EU drinking water rules for over 25 years. As a consequence, Germany is now facing fines running into billions and the bill is going to be paid by taxpayers instead of the polluters from industrial agriculture.”

Raphael Weyland, an environmental expert working at the German environmental group NABU, said:

“The court clearly states that Germany did not take sufficient measures to protect water from agricultural pollution. The main cause of the nitrates issue is our recent way of farming. It is now time to start the long needed transition towards a sustainable land-use policy. For that, we also have to break with the traditional 2-pillar system of the Common Agricultural Policy.”