landschap met lanbouwgrond en bebouwing op de achtergrond

This article is a summary of previously published RIVM National Institute for Public Health and the Environment news regarding the nitrogen and PFAS problem in the Netherlands in 2019. 

In May 2019, the Netherlands’ Council of State (the country’s highest administrative court) ruled that the current ‘Integrated Approach to Nitrogen’ (PAS in Dutch) for reducing excess nitrogen in vulnerable Natura 2000 areas is in breach of EU law. According to the Council of State, the assumptions on which the PAS is based (mainly future deposition reductions) do not meet the requirements defined in the EU Birds and Habitats Directive. This has effectively put the granting of permits for building houses and infrastructure, and enlarging farms on hold.

The PAS approach

The PAS approach was developed to reduce nitrogen deposition in Natura 2000 areas and to create room for economic development in the vicinity of those areas. It includes an appropriate assessment of adverse impacts on Natura 2000 areas, which is obligatory within the Birds and Habitats Directive. Only when the contribution of new nitrogen-emitting activities is within permissible limits, will new activities be permitted. Ammonia and nitrogen oxides end up in the environment mainly as a result of animal husbandry and manure applications in farming, and emissions from traffic and industry. 

RIVM’s role

RIVM continuously monitors the concentrations of nitrogen oxides and ammonia in the air and precipitation. Together with site managers, RIVM also monitors the ammonia concentration in more than 80 nature reserves. In addition to the concentration, we also measure the emission and deposition of ammonia, using various measuring systems. Model calculations are also carried out to explain the measured levels of ammonia and to map the nitrogen deposition in nature. Based on this data, RIVM provides the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management and the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality with advice and information on nitrogen deposition. RIVM also develops and manages the set of instruments that can be used by permit issuers to calculate the emission and deposition of nitrogen on Natura 2000 sites. This set of instruments is called AERIUS. For more information, please visit the AERIUS website.

Farmers protest at RIVM

The rule of the Council of State, and the discontinuation of the PAS programme which followed, led to political and societal discussions. Granting building permits for housing and infrastructure and the expansion of farms could no longer be regulated by the PAS, and was effectively put on hold. At the same time, the availability of affordable housing and the need for new housing development are key issues on the societal agenda, as is the quality of the countryside and the sustainability of the agricultural sector.  On 16 October 2019, thousands of farmers protested in the vicinity of RIVM  in Bilthoven. RIVM’s Director-General, Hans Brug, was present at the protest. He listened to the farmers and emphasised that RIVM has taken note of the doubts and criticisms. He also insisted that the RIVM’s method for determining nitrogen precipitation is robust and scientifically sound. He informed the farmers that an additional evaluation will soon be carried out by national and international scientists and knowledge institutes. It will take into account the criticism and questions about the methods used to calculate and measure nitrogen levels. RIVM has emphasised that we are working with many other knowledge partners and the agricultural sector to gather knowledge about the levels of nitrogen present in the Netherlands and what effects this may have on nature. The knowledge on this subject has been built up over many years through measurements, calculations and research into the distribution of nitrogen in the atmosphere. This has always been tested and reviewed by other experts, including in international reviews.

Temporary background values for PFAS in Dutch soil

More or less at the same time, another issue appeared on the societal agenda: PFAS. The abbreviation PFAS stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. PFAS are a large group of over 4000 man-made chemicals or degradation products of man-made chemicals. PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) are examples of PFAS that have been identified as Substances of Very High Concern and are widespread in Dutch soil. 

The presence of low concentration of PFOS and PFOA in soils culminated in a restriction of the management and reuse of soil and sediments and consequently in the pausing of dredging and building activities. To resolve this, RIVM was asked to provide input for the development of a framework of standards and a perspective for action that, on the one hand, controls the risks to man and the environment and, on the other hand, gives room to soil management, dredging activities and building.

In November 2019, RIVM derived temporary background values for two types of PFAS in Dutch soil: PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate) and PFOA (perfluoro octanoic acid). For PFOS, RIVM recommends a temporary background value of 0.9 micrograms per kilogram of dry soil and 0.8 micrograms per kilogram of dry soil for PFOA. Background values are based on the base level of presence of PFAS in Dutch soils. 

These temporary values precede the research into the definitive background values of PFAS in the soil in the Netherlands. For this, RIVM will carry out measurements in the soil at approximately one hundred selected locations in the Netherlands. This will provide input for the final action framework on PFAS in soil and groundwater expected by the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management in 2020.

This article has been written for our international newsletter, Issue 1, 16 January 2020.