The deadline for evidence has now passed for a House of Commons Select Committee hearing, to be held on 25 October about the North East sealife die-off. But on Facebook, Tory Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen continues to wage his own dead crabs war, taking pot shots at those who have raised concerns about the disaster, and banning them from his account.
In October last year, thousands of dead and dying marine creatures, mostly crustaceans, washed up on the beaches of the North East and North Yorkshire. Fisherman found stretches of barren sea and their catch dwindled. Further piles of sea life corpses were seen on the shoreline earlier this year.
An investigation by the government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) concluded that the culprit was a toxic algal bloom. But residents and fishermen were not convinced, suspicious that the cause could be the dumping at sea of contaminated sediment dredged from the River Tees. There are concerns that more radical dredging of the Tees for Houchen’s pet Freeport project, will create another environmental catastrophe.
A study by marine pollution expert Tim Deere-Jones pointed the finger at the industrial chemical pyridine, found by Defra to be present in the die-off crabs at up to 74 times the level of the Cornish control creatures. The report was contracted by the Whitby Fishermen’s Association.
A further group study by the universities of York, Hull, Newcastle and Durham found the die-off was in the off-shore area where river sediment was dumped days before, and that pyridine had a greater effect on crabs than on other creatures. After laboratory poisoning with pyridine, the study crabs exhibited the same bizarre neurological symptoms as the die-off crustaceans.
Commissioned by the North East Fishing Collective, the study has yet to be published and only an interim report has been released to the press. But it was enough to spark the interest of the House of Commons Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs which scrutinises Defra.
The Select Committee has invited the university scientists to present evidence from their research. The public purpose of the hearing is to examine the conflicting accounts of the cause of the die-off. There are leaked reports however that a private aim is to open a full committee inquiry.
Houchen on facebook
News of a hearing stirred Houchen to action. On his Facebook page he claimed:
“A report produced by a man named Tim Deere Jones is [sic] known to write these reports around the country that are specious. He’s a known environmental activist and is not a scientist”.
We reached out to Mr Deere-Jones for his reaction. He replied:
“Like everything else Mayor Houchen has said on this issue, his comments are totally un-evidenced and therefore worthless and empty. … His desperation to push forward with the Freeport development, even if it risks the destruction of the long established and sustainable regional inshore fishery is rather sad.”
In his Facebook post Houchen also dismissed the joint university investigation:
“There was apparently a recent report produced by 4 universities but that hasn’t been confirmed as it would appear it was done by carefully selected academics from each institution. The main being a Green Party member and activist with a second being a know[n] socialist supporter”
“It also hasn’t been peer reviewed as any normal scientific study would be and they refuse to share the modelling they used for the report – highly unusual but not surprising given this is being led by the Labour Party and extinction rebellion activists to try and stop investment and jobs at the Freeport for political purposes”.
“Ahead of the Select Committee hearing it is saddening that Tees Valley Mayor, Mr Ben Houchen @BenHouchen has launched a series of personal attacks against me on Facebook and against the science conducted by the university partnership.”
He added that Houchen was “labouring under a number of misconceptions about the science”.
In response to Houchen’s accusation that the universities withheld modelling information, he tweeted:
“We have received NO requests to share our modelling work and we will gladly do that and are prepared to speak at length about what our models show.”
Houchen also claimed that the university study did not find pyridine in the water, but Dr Caldwell replied,
“All pyridine will have been lost at an exponential rate from the water within 30 days of release as it is destroyed by oxygen and lost through evaporation. Given this, it is an alarming RED FLAG that detectable levels of pyridine are found in the River Tees surface sediment. This points to a large reservoir of pyridine in the underlying deep anoxic sediment. This is entirely consistent with what has been observed.”
Dr Caldwell extended an offer to speak to Houchen, other interested parties and public meetings.
“We have nothing to hide” he tweeted, “quite the opposite in fact, we are champing at the bit to communicate our science.”
Houchen is invited to meetings
Mayor Houchen is spoilt for choice when it comes to meetings to discuss the die-off. The only accountability that Houchen faces is the Tees Valley Combined Authority Scrutiny Committee. He has attended one meeting in three years. At the latest meeting on Friday 14 October, Houchen was again conspicuous by his absence. The committee agreed to hold a public meeting on the environmental disaster in December. They have asked Houchen to attend.
But meetings and committees can be manipulated.
Three of the five Tees Valley local authorities – Redcar, Middlesbrough and Hartlepool – pledged to take action on the sealife die-off. However, creation of their proposed joint scrutiny committee on the issue stalled over the summer. Independent – controlled Middlesbrough has finally decided to participate, together with Redcar. Hartlepool’s Tory-led coalition has flatly refused to join.
The Hartlepool Council motion included a commitment to a public meeting. This was downgraded to an agenda item at the Economic Growth and Regeneration Committee that would be open to the public. The meeting took place on Tuesday 18 October at 10 am, thus preventing anyone with a day job from attending. Two fishermen and ten other members of the public turned up.
We are told by a participant that Tory councillor Mike Young steered the discussion towards the economic impact and away from the reasons for the die-off, even though the committee was well-provided with documents on the causal factors.
However, two Labour councillors, Pam Hargreaves and Ben Clayton, pushed through a motion that could commit the council to co-operate in the joint scrutiny committee. The proposal will be voted on at the full council meeting.
Reclaim our Seas
Houchen’s accusation that the research and protest are led by Labour and Extinction Rebellion have been met with bafflement. The grassroots action has sprung from the apolitical Facebook group Reclaim our Seas, which organised two beach demonstrations involving a Mexican wave. Videos of the events show a cross-section of the public from young families to pensioners, hardly the demographic to glue themselves to tarmac. The co-organiser, Sally Bunce, is a former police officer.
The lively local Facebook group Redcar Alert offered to hold a public meeting, inviting Houchen, who promptly blocked the group administrator. Instead, the group is now planning a public interview with Dr Caldwell.