Thursday, August 22, 2019

Robust targets needed to tackle nitrate ‘time bomb’, say MPs

March 5, 2019 by  
Filed under News & Business

Stringent targets are needed to underpin water quality and support farmers as they reduce nitrate pollution from agriculture, says a report by MPs.

The document says farmers have made good progress reducing nitrates, used frequently in farming fertilisers. But it says their overuse in the past created a nitrate ‘time bomb’ which continues to work its way through many ground water sources.

High levels of nitrate pollution in some groundwater sources might not peak for another 60 years, says the report by the House of Commons environmental audit committee. The Environment Agency needs more resources to ensure compliance with existing rules, it adds.

Nitrates are connected to wider nitrogen pollution because of the nitrogen cycle – including nitrogen oxides and ammonia. These powerful air pollutants can raise acidity levels when deposited in water and soil, sometimes leaching into drinking water.

The committee says existing regulation of water and air quality is based on EU legislation. It voices concern that legislation could be transposed into UK law after Brexit but remain divorced from EU institutions that monitor, update, administer and ensure compliance.

Existing standards

MPs are particularly concerned about the danger that existing standards – including the target of water bodies reaching a good status by 2027 – are weakened. The report says it is important that post-Brexit policies do not undermine the “polluter pays” principle.

Leaving the EU offers a potential opportunity for a joined-up approach, which aligns water, air and soil quality regulations and regulators, says the report. This could go further than existing standards under a new single independent environmental watchdog.

Committee chairman Mary Creagh said farming was one of the biggest sources of nitrate pollution. “Historic over use of artificial fertiliser has led to nitrate pollution in many of our groundwater sources, with some citing the threat of the so-called nitrate ‘time bomb’.”

She added: “If we are to deal effectively with the challenges nitrates pose to the environment, it is vital that, if Brexit happens, we do not end up with zombie legislation where EU laws apply but there is no oversight or governance.”

Joined-up approach

Water quality targets must be enforced – and could be even higher after Brexit, said Ms Creagh. But she added: “Only by supporting farmers to invest in infrastructure and processes to reduce artificial fertiliser application will we see better, more sustainable, environmental outcomes.

The report says progress has been made in reducing nitrates in UK surface waters, but levels are high in some areas – especially in parts of England – and the country as a whole still lags behind a number of our European neighbours.