Content of Part 4

IV. In the land of relaxed polluters

  • IV.1. Taxes for polluters: Almost always friendly [00mn54s]
  • IV.2. Cases of inconsequential water pollution fees [3mn50s]
  • IV.3. Polluted sites and soils: Knowingly abandoned dumps [11mn50s]
  • Sources

Part 1 and introductionPart 2Part 3

The Synthexim industry in northern France releases its pollutants in the nearby Aa river (Image: Going against the flow, part 4)


IV.1. Taxes for polluters: Almost always friendly

BECAUSE POLLUTING INDUSTRIES REMAIN A PILLAR OF EUROPEAN ECONOMIES, the legislators of both the European Union and States minimize pollution charges.

The French and EU pollutant emission registers provide only partial information on water pollution caused by some of the largest individual polluters (e.g., industries, landfills, waste water treatment plants). However partial, the information provided is worth examining. It reveals little known or concealed realities. In France, water pollution charges are based on pollution rates which stem from article 84 of the main French water law : the Loi sur l’eau et les milieux aquatiques of 2006. That article is codified in article L213-10-2 of the Code de l’environnement. French water law has to comply with EU water law led by the EU Water framework directive (Agence de l’eau Artois-Picardie, 2018 [a], p.2; Parlement français, 2022 [a], L213-10-2 [art. 84 LEMA]).

Thanks to a calculated laxity of EU and French laws towards polluters, water pollution fee rates are usually low. In France, the maximum pollution fee rate is 0.30 euro per kilo of total nitrogen released into a water body; it is 2 euros/kilo for phosporus and 3,60 euros/kilo for zinc or chromium, toxic when in excess in water. That said, for about 20 of the most toxic pollutants like certain hydrocarbons, pollution fee rates can be high. For instance, polluters could pay up to 10,000 euros if they dump 10 kilograms of benzo(a)pyrene into surface waters. But these high rates only apply to 20 pollutants or so, that is a tiny minority of existing pollutants (Parlement français, 2022 [a], L213-10-2 [art. 84 LEMA]; Parlement français, 2022 [b], R213-48-3).

In France, regional decision-makers in river basin districts can legally descend below these maximum pollution fee rates if they want to, which is the case in the Artois-Picardie river basin district in northern France. Throughout this district, polluters are supposed to pay 0.19 euro per kilo of materials in suspension released into a water body, that is 0.11 euro below the maximum pollution fee rate of 0.30 euro per kilo. Materials in suspension make water murky, reduce photosynthesis and the concentration of dissolved oxygen and can suffocate fish. A part of these materials settle down as sediments at the bottom of rivers and lakes where they hinder the development of plants and invertebrates (Agence de l’eau Artois-Picardie, 2018 [a], p.2; EauFrance, 2021 [b]; Parlement français, 2022 [a], L213-10-2 [art. 84 LEMA]).

Another pro-polluter pollution fee rate in France is that of the chemical oxygen demand or COD. In Artois-Picardie, it is set at 0.13 euro/kilo emitted into a water body, that is 0.07 euro less than the national maximum pollution fee rate. The chemical oxygen demand is the oxygen required to oxidize organic matter in water, that is to degrade it. Higher COD levels reduce dissolved oxygen levels, which makes the water unhealthy for aquatic life and sometimes unbearable (Agence de l’eau Artois-Picardie, 2018 [a], p.2; EauFrance, 2021 [b]; Parlement français, 2022 [a], L213-10-2 [art. 84 LEMA]; Real Tech Inc., 2017 [a]).

That soft-on-polluters approach can be found elsewhere in the EU. Let’s take two other examples in eastern and southern Europe. In Poland in the east, the discharge of one kilogram of materials in suspension into a water body costs the polluter no more than 0.13 euro; for one kilo of chlorine or sulphate, the pollution fee rate is 0.0125 euro. A similar observation can be made in the south, in Portugal for instance, where the release into water of one kilo of nitrogen is charged 0.15 euro, while one kilo of oxidizable matter1 is set at 0.32 euro and one kilo of phosphorus at 0.18 euro (IEEP, 2017 [a], p.2; IEEP, 2017 [b], p.2).

IV.2. Cases of inconsequential water pollution fees

What is the actual impact of pollution fee rates on industries? The case of the Artois-Picardie river basin district in northern France, which includes numerous industrial areas scattered across the district, is appropriate to try to determine this impact. In 2022, the latest available data on French pollutant emission register date back to 2020 (Géorisques, 2022).

That year, the Heineken brewery (Mons-en-Barœul) released pollutants into the Marque river via a waste water treatment plant. Heineken reported the discharge of 104 tons of biochemical oxygen demand (BOD5) and 310 tons of chemical oxygen demand or COD. Biochemical oxygen demand measures the amount of dissolved oxygen used by some microorganisms to decompose organic matter. The more BOD5 is discharged, the more dissolved oxygen levels drop, the more degraded the aquatic environment gets. For its 104 tons of BOD5 and 310 tons of COD, Heineken had to pay about 66,000 euros in water pollution fees. For a company whose annual turnover was 23,7 billion euros in 2020, 66,000 euros is not a deterrent (Agence de l’eau Artois-Picardie, 2018 [a]; Géorisques, 2022Pleinchamp, 2021; Real Tech Inc., 2017 [b]).

Ajinomoto is another big regional industry. In 2020, this pharmaceutical and agri-food company declared having dumped 319 tons of nitrogen and 1,580 tons of COD in the Somme canal. It resulted in a water pollution fee of 234,000 euro or 0.003 percent of the 7.8 billion euros worth of products Ajinomoto sold in 2020. Another example of a rather large industry taking advantage of low pollution fee rates is the Herta meat industry, which reported important emissions in the Ternoise river in 2020 : 708 tons of COD, 335 tons of BOD5 and 9.2 tons of phosphorus. Hence a water pollution fee of 188,000 euros. It represents a trivial 0.02 percent of Herta’s 788 million euro annual turnover (Agence de l’eau Artois-Picardie, 2018 [a]; Ajinomoto, 2020; Géorisques, 2022; Societe.com, 2021 [a]).

Among big local water polluters of the Artois-Picardie river district, there is also a research and development unit of the Nestlé agrifood giant. In 2019, Nestlé reported that this unit released 2,759 tons of COD, 445 tons of BOD5, 21 tons of phosphorus, 242 tons of nitrogen and 613 tons of materials in suspension into the Selle and Somme rivers via a waste water treatment plant. As a result, Nestlé was charged 636,000 euros, another paltry pollution fee for an industry whose annual turnover was 86 billion euros in 2019 (Agence de l’eau Artois-Picardie, 2018 [a]; Les Echos, 2020; Géorisques, 2022).

What about smaller local industries in Artois-Picardie and elsewhere in France? Are they deterred in any way by water pollution taxes? A case in point in Artois-Picardie is the Douaisienne d’Abattage Pruvost Leroy meat processing industry. In 2020, this industry released 216 tons of COD and 103 tons of BOD5 into the Scarpe river via a waste water treatment plant. When compared to its size (44 employees and 8.1 million euros of annual turnover), it is clear that Douaisienne d’Abattage discharges large loads of pollutants. But its 2020 water pollution fee of 54,000 euros was a mere 0.7 percent of its annual turnover, which fits easily into a company’s budget (Agence de l’eau Artois-Picardie, 2018 [a]; Géorisques, 2022; Societe.com, 2021 [b]).

The same can be said for a medium-sized local industry with substantial discharges of pollutants like the Synthexim chemical industry. In 2020, this company, made of 105 workers and generating 17 million euros of annual turnover, emitted 233 kilos of chloroform, 388 kilos of toluene (classified as dangerous for the environment), 359 kilos of methylene chloride, 10 kilos of ethylene chloride, 328 tons of COD and 123 tons of BOD5 in the delta of the Aa river via a waste water treatment plant. Synthexim was consequently charged 100,000 euros for water pollution, that is 0.6 percent of its annual turnover. In the end, in France and elsewhere in the EU, even small or medium-sized local industries with substantial emissions get away with inconsequential penalties, just like the big ones (Agence de l’eau Artois-Picardie, 2018 [a]; Géorisques, 2022; Societe.com, 2021 [c]).

In France, there are at least three aggravating factors to these friendly water pollution fees:

  1. First, annual water pollution thresholds under which industries pay no fee benefit a whole lot of so-called “small polluters”, whether the latter discharge their pollutants via a waste water treatment plant or directly into water. So these “small polluters” do not have anything to pay when they discharge, among other things, less than 5,200 kilograms of materials in suspension, less than 880 kilos of nitrogen, less than 9,900 kilos of COD or less than 200 kilos of eight toxic metals like lead or nickel (classified as métox with weighting coefficients to calculate pollution fees from 1 for chromium to 50 for mercury). I am just giving a few examples of exemption from water pollution fees (Parlement français, 2021 [a], L213-10-2 [art. 84 LEMA]).

  2. There is a second aggravating factor to friendly pollution fees: most industries monitor themselves their release of pollutants into water. Then these industries send their data to the competent authorities of the river basin district where they release pollutants. In France, they send these data to the district’s water agency (Parlement français, 2020 [a], articles R213-48-6 to R213-48-9).

  3. Third aggravating factor, an external and regular monitoring of pollutant release only occurs when industries exceed at least one of the legal pollution thresholds. For instance, annual thresholds are set at 600 tons for materials in suspension and chemical oxygen demand, at 40 tons for nitrogen, at 10 tons for phosphorus and at 10 tons too for the eight dangerous metals in the métox category. Moreover, polluters who exceed these annual thresholds have a special privilege. The industry subject to external monitoring can pick and choose any State-approved external agency for the control. State authorities cannot afford to verify the kind of relationship that exists between the industry and the monitoring agency. In 2018 in Artois-Picardie, monitoring agencies controlled only 20 percent of the industries subject to water pollution fees (AEAP, 2022 [a], p.72; Parlement français, 2020 [a], articles R213-48-6 to R213-48-9).

This discussion on water pollution fees for industries ends with a remark: most specific cases of polluting industries mentioned here do not cover the 45 priority substances under EU legislation, substances like benzene, dichloromethane or lead. If we add this problem to other pollutants mentioned here like nitrogen, materials in suspension or oxidizable matter, the picture gets even bleaker. An article published in 2019 in The Science of Total Environment focused on the impact of these priority substances on EU rivers. It sums up this impact as follows: “Large industrial point source emissions [are] generally important at a local level”… (Aloe et al., 2019)

IV.3. Polluted sites and soils: Knowingly abandoned dumps

Polluted sites and soils are often located in areas with human activities that either still exist or no longer do such as industries or landfills in many cases. Polluted sites and soils are contaminated places where pollutants slowly leach into surface water and more often into the groundwater. The degradation of these pollutants in groundwater can take decades. The degradation rate depends on the geology and local water cycle, on the rate of groundwater recharge and the properties of pollutants (EEA, 2018, p.49, 66, 71).

In France, it is common for industries to no longer be able to clean up groundwater contamination because they closed or cannot afford it. In both cases, State autorities like the ministry of the environment or the prefecture can take over. They can mandate the Ademe, a State agency, in order to “secure” the polluted site or perform another task on it. This “task” or “securing” does not mean cleaning up the site and local groundwater. In most cases, groundwater contamination persists to varying degrees In many instances, State officials are content to assess the local environmental impact of the site. In other instances, officials ban construction on the site so that local people would not be contaminated. The French State has been funding a part of the cleanup on polluted sites and soils, notably through the yearly €400 million industrial and urban wastelands fund in 2021 and 2022. However, this fund falls far short of the huge investments required in a country the size of France where new polluted sites and soils regularly appear. Moreover, cleanup efforts can be incomplete. Finally, the annual €400 million fund is by no means guaranteed in the future (Ademe, 2022 [a]; Géorisques, 2021 [b]; Ministère EFSIM, 2022 ; Ministère TES, 2011, VI).

In 2022, hundreds of State-listed polluted sites dot the 20,000 square-kilometer Artois-Picardie basin district alone. Three examples in the département de la Somme in southern Artois-Picardie where I live give an idea of how vastly neglected the problem of water contamination by polluted sites and soils is (Géorisques, 2022 [b]):

  1. Next to a densely populated part of Amiens (Faubourg de Hem), the Cosserat textile industry extended over 280,000 square meters. This company was wound up in 2012. Apart from a few studies, nothing has been done to clean up this polluted site. Some of the most dangerous hydrocarbons as well as vinyl chloride keep on polluting the local underground water and make it unfit for human consumption. Despite a project to rehabilitate the Cosserat site, groundwater pollution will most likely persist (Cancer environnement, 2018 [a]; Géorisques Cosserat, 2022; Radisson, 2022).

  2. Nothing has been done on the site of Mewa (laundries) located in Eppeville. Yet, the local underground water body is known to have been contaminated by hydrocarbons, phtalates and solvents from that polluted site for more than ten years. (Géorisques Mewa, 2022).

  3. On 42,000 square meters in a neighborhood of Abbeville, the Maillard company used to manufacture accessories for mopeds until 1991. National authorities know that this polluted site presents a high risk of contaminating underground water with nitrates, cyanide, phosphates, hydrocarbons and metals. The contamination has most likely already occurred, but the competent authorities, as very often happens with polluted sites, merely requested a supervision of water quality 18 years ago (Géorisques Maillard, 2022).


Ademe, 2022 [a]. Portail open data de l’ADEME. Webpage viewed on 7/1/2022

AEAP, 2022 [a]. Compte rendu d’activité 2021.Webpage viewed on 7/1/2022

Agence de l’eau Artois-Picardie, 2018 [a]. Article 2 – Taux de redevances. Webpage viewed on 7/1/2022

Ajinomoto, 2020. By the numbers. Webpage viewed on 7/1/2022

Aloe et al., 2019. River pollution by priority chemical substances under the Water Framework Directive: A provisional pan-European assessment. Science of the total environment. Vol. 662, pp.434-445. Webpage viewed on 7/1/2022

Cancer environnement, 2018 [a]. Chlorure de vinyle. Webpage viewed on 7/1/2022

EauFrance, 2021 [b]. Rechercher un terme. Webpage viewed on 7/1/2022

EEA, 2018 [a]. European waters. Assessment of status and pressures 2018. Webpage viewed on 7/1/2022

Géorisques, 2022. Registre des émissions polluantes. Webpage viewed on 7/1/2022

Géorisques, 2022 [b]. Pollution des sols, SIS et anciens sites industriels – Accès aux données. Webpage viewed on 7/1/2022

IEEP, 2017 [a]. Water resources fee in Portugal. Webpage viewed on 7/1/2022

IEEP, 2017 [b]. Wastewater fee in Poland. Webpage viewed on 7/1/2022

Les Echos, 2020. Nestlé va continuer à se transformer. Webpage viewed on 7/1/2022

Ministère EFSIM, 2022. Fonds pour le recyclage des friches. Webpage viewed on 7/1/2022

Ministère TES, 2011, VI. Circulaire du 26/05/11 relative à la cessation d’activité d’une installation classée chaîne de responsabilités – défaillance des responsables. Webpage viewed on 7/1/2022

Parlement français, 2022 [a]. Article L213-10-2 du code de l’environnement. Webpage viewed on 7/1/2022

Parlement français, 2022 [b]. Article R213-48-3 du code de l’environnement. Webpage viewed on 7/1/2022

Parlement français, 2020 [a]. Article R213-48-6 du code de l’environnement. Webpage viewed on 7/1/2022

Pleinchamp, 2021. Baisse du CA et perte nette pour Heineken en 2020. Webpage viewed on 7/1/2022

Radisson, 2022. Recyclage des friches : le gouvernement abonde le fonds de 100 millions d’euros supplémentaires. Webpage viewed on 7/1/2022

Real Tech Inc., 2017 [a]. Chemical oxygen demand (COD). Webpage viewed on 7/1/2022

Societe.com, 2021 [a]. Herta. Webpage viewed on 7/1/2022

Societe.com, 2021 [b]. Douaisienne d’abattage. Webpage viewed on 7/1/2022

Societe.com, 2021 [c]. Synthexim. Webpage viewed on 7/1/2022

1 Oxidizable matter = (COD + 2*BOD5)/3

Nicolas Barbier 2022, all rights reserved