In fact, it is no longer a surprise: when environmental activist Johan Vollenbroek from the environmental campaign group Mobilization for the Environment (MOB) and adviser Valentijn Wösten sue the nitrogen policy of the national government or local authorities, they are almost certain to win. Punishment after punishment.
This Wednesday, the duo achieved another success. They had brought no less than 29 cases against the province of Overijssel. These were heard on six session days in January and February. Broadly speaking, things were about one thing: the nitrogen policy in Overijssel caused further damage to nature due to nitrogen emissions. This is not allowed.
All objections from MOB in the 29 cases were upheld by the judge on Wednesday. This means that “the province must reconsider these nitrogen decisions”, the judge believes. Vollenbroek & Wösten – Overijssel: 29-0.
To understand the reservoir of 29 things, take a step back in time. In May 2019, the environmental organization MOB noted its biggest victory to date: The Council of State put an end to Dutch nitrogen policy. The government had for years done too little to reduce nitrogen emissions, and nature deteriorated as a result. Thousands of (construction) projects were stopped immediately.
Also read: “Municipal and provincial trade in nitrogen rights is harmful to nature”
Since then, governments have only been allowed to allow economic activities if they can demonstrate that they are not increasing nitrogen precipitation. In order to build, the state and local authorities are looking for legal goat trails. But it can have a negative effect on nature, which deteriorates as a result.
MOB is therefore suing governments across the country. The organization wants e.g. to enforce that municipalities, provinces and the central government comply with the decision of the Council of State.
The 29 cases in Zwolle are complicated cases. These are three main themes: The equipment in the farm sheds, the effects of fertilization and grazing by milk producers and (agricultural) companies without a nature permit.
For example, the province of Overijssel has issued eleven “nature permits” to farmers because it would not have negative effects on nearby nature reserves. According to the province, farmers use nitrogen-reducing measures in their stables, such as a floor that separates manure and piss, so that less nitrogen is released into the air. That would be enough.
‘Reduction of emissions is uncertain’
But the court disagrees. In most cases, it can not be said with certainty that the natural areas will not be affected. It is uncertain whether the housing systems ‘in these specific cases will lead to the expected reduction of nitrogen emissions’, the ruling reads.
The court also finds that the province of Overijssel has not sufficiently investigated whether the spreading of manure over the ground and the dispatch of cows on grass affect vulnerable nature in the area. The provinces state that this has “no significant adverse effects”, but the court finds that this is insufficiently substantiated.
The third question concerns eleven farmers from Overijssel, who expanded their (farm) business between 2015 and 2019 and did not have to apply for a permit because they wanted to emit some nitrogen. Due to the well-known decision of the Prime Minister, these companies became illegal companies that illegally emit nitrogen.
MOB selected a number of large companies in Overijssel and believed that these companies should be inspected to ensure that they do not put extra strain on nature. But the province refused to do so because the emissions would be “insignificant”. The court does not agree: There is a “lack of insight into what the nitrogen increase is” and what the consequences are for the natural zones nearby.
The province of Overijssel does not want to respond in substance to Wednesday’s statements. She has not yet studied the verdict, a spokesman said. The same goes for the Ministry of Agriculture, it sounds from a spokesman. The interprovincial consultation, the provincial umbrella organization, also does not want to respond effectively.
More pressure on other provinces
The fact that MOB is right in 29 cases increases the pressure on other provinces. The discussion about equipment in stables, fertilization and confinement of illegal (farm) companies is underway throughout the Netherlands. The other provinces can wet their breasts.
Will Overijssel now carry out more controls on illegal (agricultural) enterprises? MOB adviser Valentijn Wösten is cautiously optimistic. And will other provinces in Overijssel follow suit? Wösten: “I have a hard time with that.”
It is becoming increasingly difficult for Christianne van der Wal (VVD), Minister of Nature and Nitrogen, to find a solution to the headache file at illegal companies, a total of around 3,200. She stresses that legalizing these companies is only a matter of time and that they will be monitored first. However, that attitude becomes less tenable. Especially because Overijssel a few months ago after a similar ruling indicated that it would check the companies.
The question is therefore no longer whether illegal (agricultural) enterprises are monitored, but when. And – perhaps more importantly – what happens if companies violate Dutch nitrogen regulations. Should they then close? In that case, the cabinet can prepare for some peasant resistance.
A version of this article was also published in the newspaper on May 12, 2022