The last Sunday of August saw hundreds of people flock to the North East seaside. This was not that time-honoured trip to catch the last rays of summer sun, and they left their buckets and spades at home. They were there to hold a beach protest at government inaction over the mass die-off of crabs, lobsters, and other sea creatures along the North East coast.
It was October 2021 when waves of crustaceans washed up on the beaches from Sunderland to Whitby, forming piles of dead and dying sea life, waist-deep in places. The dead also included the apex predators – seals and porpoise The marine catastrophe was echoed in similar, smaller events in February and May this year.
An investigation by the government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) blamed a bloom of algae. A suspicious shadow on satellite images was their proof.
Residents and fishermen were not convinced, however, pointing a finger at the dredging of the River Tees that took place in the days before the first die-off. By 4 October the dredger UKD ORCA had completed ten days of routine dredging, overseen by the harbour authority PD Ports. The ORCA removed 148,000 tonnes of sediment from the river mouth and dumped it 2.5 miles off the Redcar coast. The next day, dead crustaceans started to wash up on the shore.
This September sees more radical dredging in preparation for the new Freeport infrastructure, when two million tonnes of sediment will be removed.
Levels of pyridine
An expert report commissioned by the Whitby Fishermen’s Association rejected the algae theory. It argued that the water was simply too cold for the species in question to thrive.
Instead, the report pointed out the Defra finding that the dead crabs contained levels of pyridine up to 74 times that of crab corpses off Cornwall.
The beach protest
Defra closed its investigation in February. The beach protest is calling for a reopening of that inquiry; an independent investigation; and an overhaul of dredging controls.
The campaigners are also calling for a halt to dredging while a new inquiry takes place. This is the sore point for Defra and the powers behind the planned new Freeport. Tory Tees Valley Mayor, Ben Houchen has wagered his political career on the swift success of the Freeport which it is claimed will provide up to 18,000 new jobs. Or 20,000 – the claims vary.
Will Houchen let waves of sealife deaths get in the way of his career?
An Environmental Information Request by the independent website OpenDemocracy revealed meeting minutes showing that Defra leaned on its researchers to focus on algae as the cause.
Defra has reported to North East Bylines that they did not research producers of pyridine as there are none in the Tees Valley. However, they did not review chemical companies that use pyridine in their processes, like Vertellus or Fine Organics, both at Seal Sands near the mouth of the Tees. Nor did they check the effluent data of Northumbrian Water which treats Vertellus’ waste and disposes of it in the Tees. Vertellus decommissioned its Seal Sands plant in October last year.
Pyridine has a myriad industrial applications including as an ingredient in pesticides and pharmaceuticals. Traditionally a by-product of coal tar manufacture, it has often been replaced by other products due to concerns over its impact on human health.
There are two different varieties of the chemical. Synthetic pyridine is manufactured specifically for commercial use. Organic pyridine is a waste product of the coking, iron and steel industries. It is found in slag heaps.
If we look at the Tees with one and a half centuries of iron and steel industry along its banks, how much historical organic pyridine is buried in the riverbed sediment? Slag heaps proliferated by the Tees mouth.
Unfortunately for Houchen, the vast former SSI steelworks site, currently being demolished and cleaned up, is home to a range of slag hills currently being removed. Then there are the explosive demolitions of the coke ovens and the Dorman Long Tower which took place in September last year.
The North East is spoiled for choice when it comes to slag heaps. A cliff at Seaham, Sunderland, collapsed in May last year. The cliff at Chemical Beach is actually an old slag heap and sea currents could have washed the debris southwards to the die-off zone.
Defra could also have investigated other possibilities: gasses from underground mines being just one example. The Durham Coalfield stretches under the North Sea and old mineworkings extend for miles under the seabed.
There’s also the illegal dumping and simply unknown old contamination. In Seaton Carew for example the gardens of houses on Wainwright Walk were found to be contaminated with lead, arsenic and zinc.
Rumours are whispered of Hartlepool’s colourful waste management sector. Neil Elliott, former director of Niramax, is currently serving a 15-year stretch for his involvement in a killing, unrelated to the firm.
The fact that the dredgers do not have to test for pyridine begs the question: what else do they not test for? Are we witnessing the outcome of an unknown pollutant? Are the Defra testing protocols up to date for Teesside’s chemical industry cluster which offers a range of novel specialty chemicals? Is the monitoring of historical pollution fit for purpose and what efforts are being made to clean up the most poisoned waterway in Britain?
All this leads us to ask: what can kill seabed-dwelling crustaceans with no warning and at such a scale?
As yet no-one has the answer.
Human chain protest
On beach after beach the protesters on Sunday linked hands in a human chain and the organisers – Facebook group Reclaim Our Sea – vowed to press ahead with their campaign.
Co-organiser Alison Pake, a seal rescuer and ocean activist in Sunderland said:
“It was awesome. The next one will be even better”.
Council motions at Middlesbrough, Redcar and Hartlepool, have called for their own independent probe. The Labour councillors who led those motions are meeting to work out how to convert them into action. They are in a minority party in all three boroughs. A sticking point is over who will pay for a new report and there’s little faith in the civic generosity of Mayor Houchen.
The two local Labour MPs, Andy Macdonald and Alex Cunningham, have also pledged their support.
Andy McDonald posted on Facebook, after attending the Save our Seas protest,
“The proposition that this disaster is simply a naturally occurring phenomenon just doesn’t wash. The algal bloom theory just isn’t credible.
“There is nothing “natural” about any of this. There are major questions about Pyridine pollution & other chemicals being disturbed and released into our waters.”
“What worries me greatly is the works yet to be done at the South Bank wharf….It is universally accepted that the composition of riverbed at the South Bank wharf is extremely concerning…The plan is to dig into the riverbed and remove the contaminated sediment.”
The more intensive dredging of the Tees takes place in a matter of days. Perhaps the work will provide an explanation for the die-off – but in the most devastating way.
The human food chain is just a crab sandwich away.
At North East Bylines we will continue with our own research – into the causes of the die-off and the reasons behind what increasingly looks like a Defra cover-up.