Press release: 19 October 2023

Top Italian court orders authorities to protect citizens from drinking water made toxic by hazelnut fertiliser run-off

In a win for the health of people and nature, the Italian Council of State has ruled that the Lazio region must act to safeguard Lake Vico – a protected nature site and source of drinking water – from catastrophic pollution caused by intensive hazelnut farming in the area.

The Council of State has found the Lazio region in breach of the law by failing to take the necessary measures to protect Lake Vico and the people dependent on its resources from toxic environmental conditions. The Lazio region has been given 60 days to take action.

The ruling upholds an appeal brought by ClientEarth and Lipu-Birdlife Italy in May 2023 against the Lazio region after the groups’ initial case against the authorities was dismissed earlier that year.

ClientEarth and Lipu-BirdLife Italy argued that the region should have stepped in as the  local authorities failed to tackle damaging conditions in Lake Vico caused by the continuous build-up of fertilisers used for intensive hazelnut plantations.

These toxic conditions, caused by massive red algal blooms, are harmful for both people and the environment, killing off nature and wildlife and rendering the water – normally used for public consumption – undrinkable.

ClientEarth lawyer Francesco Maletto said: “This ruling represents an important step for the people of the Lazio region who depend on Lake Vico for their primary source of drinking water to finally get the protection they deserve.

“The Council of State has recognised the authorities’ continued failure to address the devastating impacts caused by algal blooms in the lake, which have been destroying nature and jeopardising people’s health for years.

“The authorities will now be forced to take long overdue action, which will not only benefit local communities, but have knock-on effects for the surrounding land and biodiversity which are all inextricably linked to the health of Lake Vico.”

Giorgia Gaibani, head of Natura 2000 and Land protection at Lipu-BirdLife Italy said: “In the face of the unprecedented environmental crises we are experiencing, it is essential that the authorities prevent further degradation of our territory by acting with the ultimate aim to protect human health and enable ecosystems to thrive.”

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 group’s 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. While the groups wait for the decision regarding the breaches of the Habitats Directive, this ruling by the Council of State definitively recognises the authorities’ continued failure to comply with the Drinking Water 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 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.

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 agriculture 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.