The French connection

Troubles over water treatment don curious colours. In January 1997, Lyonnaise des Eaux, France's largest water distribution company, did the unexpected: It sued the government for failing to meet European Union (EU) directives on the maximum permissible level of nitrates in one of the rivers of the nation.

The EU limit on nitrates is 50 mg/litre. In 1996, Lyonnaise had been fined by a local court after 176 residents in Guingcamp (Brittany) sued it for supplying water with a concentration of nitrates above the EU limit. While the company admitted to the excess concentration, it put the blame on the local council which refused to endorse increased water charges. The company's argument was that increased charges were necessary to instal appropriate treatment methods for reducing the nitrate content. The council on its part argued that the excess levels were not its responsibility and that the state had failed to regulate the polluters; nitrates come into the river from poultry farming. Lyonnaise is demanding US $910,000 for damage to its reputation and towards the costs of maintaining a special water treatment plant to provide water for its customers.