French fury at filthy water

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WATER-COMPANY customers in Brittany, western France, are swamping local-government offices with mineral-water bottles in protest at the illegal levels of pollutants in their supplies.

Despite court judgements against them, the two French water giants, Compagnie Generale des Eaux (CGE) and Lyonnaise des Eaux (which both have stakes in the British water industry), are continuing to supply polluted water in Brittany. Customers forced to buy mineral water are using the bottle campaigns to show their fury at the state for allowing the rivers to become soaked in nitrates and pesticides.

In one recent case, 176 customers in the town of Guingamp each won FFr1,200 (pounds 170) compensation from Lyonnaise, which owns Northumbrian Water in the UK. Lyonnaise was found to have delivered water containing too high a level of nitrates.

In the village of Tregueux, 36 customers of CGE, which owns a number of small UK water companies, won up to FFr500 on the same grounds. CGE is appealing against that judgment, but action has now spread outside Brittany. Two weeks ago CGE lost a similar case in the Drome.

The Brittany court cases have forced the government to fund a programme to reduce contamination. But it will take years to bring pollution down to legal levels. Up to half of Brittany's rivers breach French and European regulations at certain times of the year, as a result of the overuse of nitrates by local farmers.

The companies insist they are not to blame for pollution of the "crude" river water; Lyonnaise is considering going to court to make the government acknowledge its responsibility in allowing agricultural developments close to Brittany's rivers. And ecologists agree that ultimate responsibility lies with the state."We have seen the state do nothing for 20 years," said Jacques Boutbien, spokesman for Eau Pure, a collective of 20 local environmental associations. The companies were attacked because they were the weak link, "but really we want to get at the state and the elected people, so that they act at last."