Press release: 7 December 2022

Mercury alert on the Rhine: German coal state faces court action over illegal contamination levels  

Environmental Action Germany (Deutsche Umwelthilfe) and ClientEarth are launching legal action against the state government of Germany’s North Rhine-Westphalia to enforce the protection of its waters. Mercury levels in North Rhine-Westphalia are over twice the legal limit in the vast majority of fish samples collected – some charting levels up to 11 times that threshold.

Airborne mercury pollution from coal plants – of which there are some of Europe’s worst emitters in North Rhine-Westphalia – is a major source of mercury in surface waters. For people who consume contaminated fish, mercury compounds pose a considerable health risk.

The news comes as a fresh report shows the extent to which European governments in coal regions are dodging their legal obligations to improve water quality. Collectively, governments have independently classified over 50% of Europe’s rivers, lakes and groundwater exempt from complying with crucial water cleanliness laws. Two thirds of rivers and lakes in Europe are in poor condition. 

Organic mercury compounds are toxic substances that can enter the human body, especially through the consumption of fish, and can damage the central nervous system if ingested over an extended period of time. They pose a risk for infant brain development during pregnancy, and are also particularly dangerous for babies and small children.

The current, alarming mercury levels in natural settings could be substantially reduced by installing suitable filter systems to curb emissions from coal-fired power plants – while countries await official coal phase-outs.

Paula Ciré, environmental lawyer in ClientEarth's Berlin office, said: "Catastrophes like the mass fish die-off in the Oder River this summer should remind us to pay strong attention to the state of our waters, especially in times of climate change.

“European water law is, in theory, an adequate legal instrument to protect our waters and therefore our health. But we will never achieve these goals if German and other European governments continue to systematically avoid complying with it – especially when it comes to mercury pollution.”

Jürgen Resch, CEO of Environmental Action Germany, said: "North Rhine-Westphalia experiences a particularly high release of mercury from coal plants. Experts estimate that the installation of suitable filtering systems would increase annual operating costs by a maximum of 2%. 

“It is difficult to understand why the state government prefers to accept the burden on the environment and the health risks for people rather than ensuring that all relevant mercury emitters are equipped with emission cleaning systems, regardless of their remaining time of operation.

“Since the responsible authorities have not reacted to our previous requests to adopt the necessary measures, we will now enforce clean water free of excessive mercury levels by taking legal action."

The EU’s Water Framework Directive (WFD) aims to ensure the good quality of all water bodies across Europe. However, many EU Member States fail to achieve this goal and apply exemptions rather than taking appropriate measures.

According to the European Commission, governments have resorted to employing exemptions for over half of the EU’s surface waters – a typical practice especially in coal regions, as a new study published by ClientEarth and the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) shows.

In the case of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), the state government's River Basin Management Plan for 2022-27 shows a contamination of fish in the state's rivers and lakes with mercury at a level at least twice as high as the legal threshold at 30 out of 36 measuring points.

Mercury is one of the chief reasons for poor water quality and contamination of wildlife in the EU. It comes from industrial complexes, principally coal plants – levels of mercury and other dangerous substances exceed the legal limits in about 40% of the EU’s rivers and lakes.

According to the WFD, governments must draw up action plans (so-called ‘programmes of measures’) to achieve the objectives of the directive. Since NRW's current programme of measures is unable to do so, the legal complaint asks the Higher Administrative Court of NRW in Münster to oblige the state government to draw up an effective programme of measures. A positive ruling would also point the way for other German regions and EU member states where European water law is also not sufficiently implemented.

Ciré added: “Governments only half applying water law is yet another example of people and nature being forced to bear the burden of fossil fuel pollution, instead of those who pocket the profits. The “polluter pays” principle is one of the fundamentals of European law, and governments must enforce it – companies must pay for the full impact of their operations. The best way to end this pollution is a swift exit from coal combustion. In the meantime, filter systems can bring a significant reduction in mercury emissions.”


Notes to editors:

See the following studies on the health impacts of mercury, and its link to coal burning.

Coal-fired power plants are responsible for the overwhelming majority of mercury emissions in our environment. The three largest emitters in NRW are the lignite-fired power plants operated by RWE: Weisweiler, Neurath and Niederaussem – the last two are among the worst polluters in the entire EU. These three facilities alone emitted almost 0.9 tons of mercury in 2020.  

As examples from the USA show, emissions could be significantly reduced through better exhaust gas cleaning technologies. For NRW, a study has calculated that (compared to 2012) up to 82% of mercury emissions from lignite-fired power plants could be avoided in this way.

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 Environmental Action Germany

Environmental Action Germany (Deutsche Umwelthilfe e.V. - DUH) is a non-governmental environmental and consumer protection organisation in Germany. At the same time, Environmental Action Germany is a consumer protection association which is entitled to instigate legal proceedings. The DUH has been campaigning to preserve the natural foundations of life for more than 40 years. In doing so, it brings together protecting the environment with consumer protection like no other organisation in Germany.


Dániel Fehér, Senior Strategic Communications Officer, ClientEarth, 030 31193850, 

DUH-Newsroom: 030 2400867-20,