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Regulating river pollution

UK government may have broken law on river pollution, watchdog confirms 
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Agricultural slurry spreading in a field in England, United Kingdom

The government’s own environmental watchdog has determined that the government may have broken environmental law by watering down critical regulations on nitrogen pollution in England’s rivers.

The revelation came in a response to a legal complaint submitted by WWF and ClientEarth in November 2022.

It follows the OEP finding in its annual progress report published last week that the government is well off-track to meet its long-term water targets, with the OEP urging the government to ‘speed up and scale up its efforts’.

Nitrogen run-off

In its response to WWF and ClientEarth, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) also agreed that the Environment Agency potentially breached environmental law by failing to properly assess environmental impacts on protected conservation sites before allowing farmers to exceed manure spreading limits.

English rivers are particularly at risk of nitrogen-related pollution, with over half the country classified as vulnerable to nitrogen run-off.

‘Our rivers and the precious wildlife that live in them are dying and the Government and the Environment Agency are letting it happen.

‘Nitrogen pollution – in particular runoff from farming – is continuing to cause untold damage to our rivers, driving air pollution and releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

‘To turn things around for England’s rivers, we now need urgent action and investment from Defra to support farmers to protect river health, and to hold those responsible for pollution to account.’

Executive Director of Advocacy and Campaigns at WWF

Nitrogen in fertiliser

Nitrogen is the key component of the UK’s most commonly used type of fertiliser.

In line with the global agreement for nature set out at COP15, the UK has less than seven years to halve nutrient waste by 2030 – yet little attention has been paid by government to the highly damaging impacts of nitrogen pollution to rivers, soils, air, oceans and our own public health.

Nitrous oxide emissions – which are the result of nitrogen fertiliser use – have almost 300 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide, and over 60% of the UK’s nitrogen-sensitive habitats have nitrogen levels that exceed recommended levels.

The charities warn that every day the government fails to act will result in yet more damage to the UK’s environment.

Nitrogen is also a leading cause of water quality deterioration in the UK.

With only 14% of our rivers in good health, nearly a third of the groundwater used for drinking in England requires blending, treatment or replacement due to high nitrate levels, and over half of English lakes are failing to meet good status with respect to nitrogen levels.

‘Unabated use of nitrogen fertiliser both degrades the air, water and soil that our food system depends on, and further fuels climate change – and as we’ve seen with this decision, the law is a tool we can use to bring it to an end.

‘Rather than raise its ambition when it comes to protecting our rivers, the government has left the law unenforced for years and encouraged some actors to pollute our waterways while many farmers try to do the right thing when it comes to fertiliser use.

‘Thanks to our complaint and the OEP’s decision, the government must revise their guidelines and we hope this will help bring river pollution under control as soon as possible.’

Head of UK at ClientEarth

Encouraging breaches of law?

As a result of the OEP agreeing with ClientEarth and WWF that Defra’s guidance on enforcing the Farming Rules for Water may have, in effect, unlawfully encouraged breaches of the law, the OEP has written to Defra to amend the guidance much sooner than the existing September 2025 deadline.

The OEP also pledged to actively monitor the Environment Agency’s approach to ensure that it complies with legal requirements.

This will help ensure the Environment Agency fulfil its legal responsibilities – which includes overseeing the impacts that future agricultural pollution may have on protected wildlife sites.

While this decision is largely welcome, WWF and ClientEarth are disappointed that the OEP did not ask the Environment Agency to more widely ramp up enforcement against polluters.

However, the OEP did say it remained concerned about enforcement of existing environmental law by the Environment Agency as a result of the complaint.

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