EU raises Irish water quality concerns as nitrates derogation hangs in the balance

Photo: Robert Jones
Photo: Robert Jones
Environment Minister Simon Coveney Photo: Tom Burke

Darragh Mccullough

Farmers are facing a battle to hold onto their nitrates derogations as EU officials assess our application for rolling exemptions to phosphorus and nitrogen limits.

The EPA has already concluded that there was a drop in water quality in rivers from 2012 to 2015, despite the implementation of closed periods for spreading fertiliser and the billions spent on the Farm Waste Management Scheme.

Less than 70pc of Ireland's rivers are considered unpolluted, despite a national commitment to have 100pc at this level since 2015.

EU Commission officials are reported to be concerned that water quality here will decline further with the intensification of the dairy industry.

It has already revoked the nitrates derogation for Denmark and imposed swingeing cuts to the number of cows that Dutch farmers are permitted to retain.

"The view is that we're up against it because the view in Brussels is: how can Ireland drive on milk output and simultaneously improve water quality?" said one Teagasc researcher.

The derogation has been crucial in allowing farmers to apply almost 50pc more nitrogen on land than EU rules would otherwise allow.

A bi-lateral meeting between EU Commission and Irish officials from the EPA, Teagasc and the Department of Agriculture took place last Friday. A further six- to eight-week consultation period is due to kick off in March.

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The Ministers for Agriculture and the Environment, Michael Creed and Simon Coveney, will be briefing farm organisations on the situation tomorrow. A decision on Ireland's case is due by December.

While nearly 7,000 farmers avail of the nitrates derogation here annually, over 1,600 are fined close to €2m annually for breaching either the 170kg/ha or 250kg/ha limit.

The ICMSA said there was an "overwhelming need to keep the derogation". They are also looking for increased flexibility in slurry spreading during the closed period based on weather conditions, field capacity, soil temperatures and where there's no risk of nutrient loss to water.

In addition, they have proposed two levels within Index 3 to allow farmers who get close to optimising soil nutrients to keep building soil fertility.


The most recent EPA report on water quality states that agriculture was the suspected cause in 53pc of river pollution incidents in the period 2010-2012. It adds that the number of the highest- quality river waters has continued to decline, along with a 3pc decline in the number of monitored lakes at satisfactory status since the 2007-2009 period.

"It is clear that supplementary action by the agriculture sector at a local and regional level will be required to improve water quality," it concludes.

Meanwhile, IFA efforts to get movement from the EU Commission on fertiliser prices received a boost last week when the European Farmer and Co-op representative body (Copa/Cogeca) gave its backing to a campaign to remove duties and tariffs on fertiliser prices.

In Brussels on Friday, Copa/Cogeca formally adopted a position paper supporting the issues IFA has raised in relation to fertiliser pricing.

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