Press release: 12 October 2022

Italian authorities sued as hazelnut fertiliser run-off poisons drinking water

Environmental groups have taken legal action against Italian authorities for failing to take steps to safeguard Lake Vico – a protected nature site and source of drinking water – from catastrophic pollution from intensive hazelnut farming in the Lazio region.

ClientEarth and Lipu-BirdLife Italy have challenged the Lazio region, the Water Service Authorities and the municipalities of Ronciglione and Caprarola near Rome for breaching several EU and national laws by failing to take the necessary measures to protect Lake Vico – an EU-protected Natura 2000 site – and the people dependent on its resources.

Intensive farming of hazelnut plantations covering more than 21,700 hectares in the surrounding region has led to a dangerous quantity of fertilisers entering the lake.

The continuous build-up of these fertilisers has created toxic conditions in Lake Vico, harming and killing off nature and wildlife and rendering the water – normally used for public consumption – undrinkable.

ClientEarth agriculture lawyer Lara Fornabaio said: “The Italian authorities’ failure to protect this site and its biodiversity from agriculture pollution means they are sacrificing nature and jeopardising people’s health.

“It’s the duty of public administrations to make sure that their lands remain fertile and healthy for generations to come. But by allowing these intensive agricultural practices to continue, they are failing to take their role as custodians of the area seriously.”

Hazelnut production has increased throughout the Lazio region for the past 50 years. Since 2018, Ferrero Group (known for manufacturing chocolate and confectionery products such as Nutella) has heavily invested in the region to boost productivity and become the main third party purchaser.

The environmental and health impacts of intensive hazelnut farming are not unique to Lake Vico, but widespread across the region. Lake Bolsena – Europe’s largest volcanic lake and a popular tourist destination – also suffers from agriculture pollution, which has begun to degrade the environment and the quality of the water.

Fornabaio added: “If we want to be able to successfully farm into the future, we need the public administrations to step in now to stop the area and its biodiversity from degrading irreversibly. If they don’t, intensive farming is going to wreck nature’s ability to provide for communities in the years ahead – and it’s depriving residents of safe drinking water today. That's why we’re taking action.”

The public authorities have not identified an alternative source of drinking water for the inhabitants of Ronciglione and Caprarola. Residents therefore still receive the water in their homes but are not allowed to directly consume it.

Federica Luoni, agriculture officer from Lipu-BirdLife Italy said: “The case of Lake Vico is the perfect example of how intensive monoculture farming is damaging one of our most important national assets – our biodiversity, which provides essential ecosystem services like drinking water and soil fertility. But the lake also provides us with something less tangible – the richness and variety of the landscape which is the heart of our country.

“Authorities at all levels must take responsibility for putting limits on a land use model that has devastating consequences for habitats and species, and instead move us towards diversified systems that restore a harmony between farming and nature.”


Notes to editors:

Legal background

In June 2022, ClientEarth and Lipu-BirdLife Italy sent letters of warning to the public administrations of the Lazio region and the municipalities of Ronciglione and Caprarola, as well as the Water Service Authorities, requesting that they comply with EU and national laws. The environmental groups received responses from the Lazio Region concerning breaches of the EU Habitats Directive and from the Local Health Authority regarding failure to comply with the Drinking Water Directive. However, according to ClientEarth and LIPU, these responses were unsatisfactory. The Lazio region, responsible for implementing the EU Nitrates Directive, did not respond to the NGOs’ letter, while the group’s concerns about the quality of the drinking water were not addressed by the municipalities, nor by the water suppliers.

The legal action is being filed in the Administrative Court for the Lazio region.

The environmental groups state that under EU law, the Lazio region has failed to adopt the necessary measures to avoid the habitats protected in the Natura 2000 Lake Vico site from deteriorating due to the impacts caused by intensive agricultural activities in the area.

Despite severe eutrophication occurring in the lake, the Lazio region’s authorities are being called out by the groups for not identifying the area as a nitrate vulnerable zone.

According to ClientEarth and Lipu-BirdLife Italy, the municipalities of Ronciglione and Caprarola have failed to avoid pollution increasing in the lake water which is normally used for drinking.

Regional background

Lake Vico (Lago di Vico) is located in the Province of Viterbo, in the northern Lazio region, 50km from Rome. The lake is legally protected as a Natura 2000 conservation site under the EU Nature Directives. In particular, under EU law, the lake has been identified as a site of community importance and has therefore been designated as a special area of conservation.

Intensive hazelnut farming has been occurring in the area around Lake Vico for the past 50 years. Intensive agricultural activities have led to an increase in fertiliser and pesticide use, which run off into the lake, affecting the quality of the water and deteriorating its habitats. An excess of nutrients entering the lake can trigger a process known as eutrophication, which leads to massive growths of algae. The algae deoxygenate the water, which effectively suffocates life in the lake.

In Lake Vico, red algal blooms occur, which in addition to removing oxygen from the lake, also release carcinogenic and toxic chemicals, which cannot be removed naturally. The toxins are harmful for the environment as well as people’s health and may cause illnesses in humans when ingested.

The water of the lake, which normally serves as a drinking water supply, has been identified by the public administration as undrinkable.

In 2018, Ferrero Group, through its subsidiary Ferrero Hazelnut Company, announced its investment project – “Progetto Nocciola Italia” – which includes the region of Tuscia. The project aims to create an additional 20,000 hectares of cultivated land by 2025, which would increase the hectares cultivated with hazelnuts by 30%. The main increase in production would occur in the Lazio region and the province of Viterbo. The company is the main third party purchaser of hazelnuts in the region as Ferrero Group aims to shift the bulk of its production from Turkey to Italy.

Protective environmental measures

ClientEarth and Lipu-BirdLife Italy are asking the authorities to comply with EU environmental laws and introduce the following measures:

  • Identify the lake as a ‘nitrate vulnerable zone’ according to EU law, which would then trigger stricter rules for using fertilisers in the area. The authorities should also recognise that the lake is particularly vulnerable to eutrophication processes. This recognition would cause specific rules to be applied to prevent excessive use of agro-chemicals and lead to appropriate measures being adopted to protect the site and lower the level of pollution in the water.
  • Adopt all the measures needed to prevent algal blooms as outlined under the Drinking Water Directive. This includes developing a plan that would require the level of agro-chemical pollution in the lake to be lowered so as to improve the quality of the water used for human consumption.
  • Adopt appropriate measures to avoid the deterioration of the habitats protected in the Natura 2000 Lake Vico site in line with the obligations set out under the Habitats Directive.
About ClientEarth

ClientEarth is a non-profit organisation that uses the law to create systemic change that protects the Earth for – and with – its inhabitants. We are tackling climate change, protecting nature and stopping pollution, with partners and citizens around the globe. We hold industry and governments to account, and defend everyone’s right to a healthy world. From our offices in Europe, Asia and the USA we shape, implement and enforce the law, to build a future for our planet in which people and nature can thrive together.

About Lipu-Birdlife Italy

Lipu-BirdLife Italy is a voluntary-based organisation, and partner of BirdLife International. Lipu’s mission is geared toward the conservation of nature, particularly wild birds and their habitats, and environmental education. It operates within areas of particular ecological value and nature reserves, wildlife recovery centres and delegations throughout the country.