Thursday, July 4, 2013

Farms trump industry in worries about European water pollution

EurActiv: When blood-red sludge broke through containment walls in the Hungarian town of Ajka in October 2010, the immediate concern was the safety of hundreds of nearby residents. In the end 10 people died from exposure and the toxic muck spilled into waterways, including the Danube, prompting alarms downstream. Spills on the magnitude of the one at the Ajka alumina plant are relatively rare and industrial pollution in many European rivers has declined since the 1960s. Tougher treatment laws, international cooperation and EU policies like the 2000 Water Framework Directive and 2006 Groundwater Directive are credited with the improvements.

While factories were once the big concern, more attention is focusing on pollution from farming, which accounts for more than half of land use in the EU and is overall the biggest consumer of water. Dietrich Borchardt is among those worried about agriculture’s effect on waterways.

“Acute industrial pollution is a rare case in Germany and even throughout Europe,” said Borchardt, who heads the Department of Aquatic Ecosystem Analysis at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Germany. He attributes threats to “the excess rate of fertilisers”. “What we call good agricultural practice today,” Borchardt said in a telephone interview, “from a water perspective is not a good practice.”

Fertilisers typically contain nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and sulphur, nutrients that help ensure healthy crops and boost yields. Commercial fertilisers use a form of nitrogen – nitrates - while organic fertilisers such as manure also contain high levels of the compound. Nitrates quickly leach into the soil and wash into streams, lakes and aquifers....

The red sludge from the alumina plant spill in Ajka, Hungary, photo by the Hungarian government

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