Press release

Legal first as Italy’s top court demands Lazio region reverse destruction of protected lake

7 May 2024

The Italian Council of State has made legal history in a court case designed to rescue a protected lake from the brink. The court has ordered the Lazio region to take immediate action to ‘reverse’ the destruction of protected habitats.

ClientEarth and Lipu-BirdLife Italy, who brought the case, say the ruling is ‘groundbreaking’ in Italy – and has potentially major ramifications for biodiversity litigation across the EU.

In the third strand of a series of challenges brought by the NGOs, the court found the Lazio region in blatant breach of its legal duty to safeguard Lake Vico – a protected nature site and source of drinking water – from dangerous pollution caused by intensive hazelnut farming in the area. It had already ruled against the authorities after local residents were deprived of safe drinking water caused by the pollution.

The regional authorities have been given a strict six-month deadline to deploy the necessary measures to reverse the destruction of protected habitats at the lake. The court recognised that the authorities were aware of this long-standing issue but had failed to act.

ClientEarth lawyer Francesco Maletto said: “This ruling makes the situation crystal clear: protected means protected. The authorities cannot knowingly sit back and allow intensive farming practices to irreversibly degrade this important site. The court has gone further than we’ve seen before, not only asking the authorities to put a stop to damaging behaviour, but to reverse and rehabilitate. That’s a step change for nature law in Italy.”

The continuous build-up of fertilisers used for intensive hazelnut plantations produce massive red algal blooms, which have created toxic conditions in the lake. This noxious environment is harmful for both people and nature, and has rendered the water – normally used for drinking by inhabitants of nearby Ronciglione and Caprarola  – undrinkable.

Maletto added: “Lake Vico isn’t just a pretty lake, but a perfect example of how people and nature are interdependent. Protected habitats are being destroyed and entire villages are being deprived of drinking water with no clear alternatives. The authorities must now follow through with the court’s ruling and take immediate action to undo the years of damage to the lake the authorities’ negligence has caused.”

The ruling is the third and final in a series of successful court actions brought by ClientEarth and Lipu-Birdlife Italy against the Lazio region. The groups have already successfully challenged the authorities’ failure to take measures to improve the quality of the drinking water, as well as address harmful nitrate levels, as required by EU and national laws. The Lazio region was ordered to create a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone and take steps to clean up the water.

Giorgia Gaibani, head of Natura 2000 and Land protection at Lipu-BirdLife Italy said: “The Lazio region’s inaction to comply with the Habitats Directive is destroying the lake’s fragile habitats, including the land needed to grow Italy’s precious hazelnuts. If left unchecked, this unsustainable way of farming will wreck nature’s ability to provide for communities now and in the years ahead."

The Council of State’s ruling is final and cannot be appealed.



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 the failure to comply with the Drinking Water Directive. However, according to ClientEarth and Lipu-BirdLife Italy, 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.

Following these unsatisfactory responses, the environmental groups took the authorities to court in October 2022. In February 2023, the Administrative Court of Rome ruled in the groups’ favour, ordering the authorities to comply with the Nitrates Directive. Following the ruling, the authorities started the process of creating a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone in the area. However, in parallel, the Administrative Court of Rome dismissed the environmental groups’ legal action against the authorities’ failure to comply with the Drinking Water Directive and the EU Habitats Directive.

In May 2023, ClientEarth and Lipu-BirdLife Italy filed two separate appeals against the court’s negative rulings. A final hearing was held in September. In October, the Council of State ruled that the authorities’ had failed to comply with the Drinking Water Directive. This ruling by the Council of State definitively recognises the authorities’ continued failure to comply with the Habitats Directive.

Regional background

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.

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 suck all the oxygen from 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 therefore been identified by the public administration as undrinkable.

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.

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 agricultural pollution, which has begun to degrade the environment and the quality of the water.

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.