On Wednesday 6 July Middlesborough Labour councillors tabled a motion to Middlesbrough council regarding ongoing concerns about sea-life deaths along the North East coast.
Last October, dead crabs, lobsters and other crustaceans washed up on the North East coastline, at Seaton Carew, South Gare, Redcar, Marske and Saltburn. The heaps of dead sea creatures were waist deep in some places along the beaches. Corpses of porpoises and seals have also appeared, and fishermen and divers have complained about barren stretches of sea where there is simply no life. Even gannets are now affected.
Two more waves of marine corpses appeared in February and May this year.
An investigation by Defra based on satellite images concluded in February this year that the mortalities were due to an algal bloom. They closed the case.
Defra’s finding of an algal bloom does not explain how the algae species suspected could survive in the estuary’s chilly 13°C waters when it thrives at 20°-24°C.
Local fishermen – the Whitby Commercial Fishing Association – commissioned a report by pollution scientist Tim Deere-Jones who noted the high levels of a hydrocarbon, pyridine, found by Defra in the crab corpses. Pyridine could be a legacy of Teesside’s heavy industry. It is a by-product of the coking process and was also manufactured on Teesside by Vertellus Specialities Ltd, which recently closed. Defra did not investigate the evidence of pyridine, which was 74 times higher in the local crustacean corpses than in crabs in Cornwall.
Suspicions were aroused because the crustacean deaths occurred at the same time as work clearing the old SSI steelworks site. The SSI works closed in October 2015 with the loss of some 2,000 local jobs. Now called the Tees Works Site, it is destined to become part of Tees Freeport, the brain-child of Tory Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen, promising 18,000 jobs.
Although the demolition of the blast furnace tower garnered much publicity, the destruction of the coke ovens at the same time might have released pyridine into the water.
Then there’s the dredging which would have disturbed over a century of toxic silt. PD Ports, the agency responsible, claim they have done no recent dredging for the Freeport, although they did dredge the river mouth in September last year. Preparation for the Freeport will require deepening a river channel by 4 metres. Silt collected during dredging is dumped at sea at approved depositary sites.
PD Ports is a member of the Freeport Board, which oversees the project. Minutes of Freeport Board meetings are not available to the public.
In the 1970s a massive clean-up of the Tees resulted in a return of salmon to the river. Peter Race, a fisherman who was involved in that project, said in a letter to the Guardian that he was told by an expert at the time, “This mud must never be disturbed”.
The Chair of the Freeport Board is Ben Houchen, who has staked his political career on the project – although its success is by no means assured. In 2012 the then Prime Minister David Cameron removed special status from the UK’s existing Freeports, which enjoyed import duty advantages, renaming them “Enterprise Zones”.
In a 2019 report, the EU urged member states to give up their Freeports as they brought little or no economic benefit and were being used for money laundering, tax evasion and smuggling in a low policing environment.
The Labour motion at Middlesbrough Council
The Labour motion at Middlesbrough Council, proposed by Cllr David Branson and seconded by Cllr Alma Hellaoui, requested that the council formally ask Tees Valley Combined Authority for clarification of the conflicting scientific evidence by commissioning a new independent report. It called on the Tees Valley local authorities to work together in expressing concern and recommended monitoring by the Council’s Economic Development, Environment and Infrastructure Scrutiny Panel.
A proposed amendment by Independent Councillor and Executive Member, Barry Cooper, aimed to gut the motion, reducing the action to merely one of local scrutiny. But only a small handful voted for his amendment.
The motion was easily passed with no amendments, a significant achievement as Labour does not have a majority on the council and needed the support of Independents.
Similar motions in Hartlepool and Redcar
Later this month similar motions are being tabled to Full Council by members of the Labour Group in Hartlepool and by Labour and Independent councillors in Redcar. Both councils are run by Independents and Conservatives.
You can read more details of the case in North East Bylines’ box-set of articles here.