It must have sounded like such a good idea. A hotbed for innovation, a hub for global trade and investment via regeneration and job creation – the definition of government plans for freeports is exemplified by Teesside. The first to begin operations, in November 2021, it fitted perfectly with plans for levelling up this region. They would scrap pesky regulations so planning could be speeded up, and at the heart of the scheme was a giant new factory to make parts for wind turbines, so light touch regulation would actually benefit the environment.
The theory was that before long the North East would boast a British-style Singapore as Teesside became one of the big winners from the new post-Brexit freedoms. Then the lavishly presented publicity hit a small problem. Reality.
When a scheme is pushed through with insufficient planning two things tend to happen. One is that developers pay too little attention to the wider consequences of what they are doing and the other is that controls over how public money gets spent become sloppy. Events in Teesside have turned into a classic case study of how damaging the results can be.
Full-scale decontamination of the area was not deemed financially viable, so they decided to do the minimum necessary and dump much of the mess out at sea. Cleaning up former industrial sites by moving polluted soil and river silt and then dumping it somewhere else has created huge problems. A cocktail of toxic materials was unearthed and taken to a new location where it was freshly released into the environment.
Chemicals such as pyridine had been lying undisturbed for decades in landscapes that were badly polluted but stable. Stirring up this material reactivated its impact.
Shortly after work began on the freeport, with the movement of contaminated material coinciding with routine dredging of the river mouth, a huge amount of local sea life began to die and bodies were washed up onto a number of beaches mainly in North Yorkshire.
People walking their dogs along the seafront reported finding enormous numbers of dead shellfish and starfish along with a few of their predators. This is exactly the mix of deaths that might be expected if there had been mass poisoning from pyridine.
The die-offs didn’t happen at one location for one brief moment in time. They have been going on for months now and they have destroyed the livelihoods of fishing communities along the coast and put local tourism at risk. No one wants to visit a resort where the beaches are covered with the stinking corpses of sea creatures.
Every effort has been made by the government to play down this problem, by repeatedly issuing calming reports which would enable the work to continue.
Algae or disease blamed
Calls for an enquiry were initially resisted, then an official report was commissioned telling the public that the die-offs were due to an algal bloom. They were not – algal blooms don’t last for months and carry on deep into winter. The report found no actual proof of the deaths being due to algae but used it as an explanation regardless.
A second official report quickly dismissed the first because of that lack of evidence, then produced another theory also based on speculation. It suggested that the die-offs might be due to some disease, one that no scientist had yet detected that would be capable of killing both shellfish and starfish in large numbers as well as lower numbers of other types of sea life – something pyridine is known to do but which would be extraordinarily difficult for a single pathogen.
No halt to dredging
Government has consistently denied that there is any evidence of significant pyridine poisoning in the environment. Now, however, York University has developed its own accredited test for pyridine and is planning a series of intensive investigations throughout the estuary.
Whilst the official reports have ground out their unconvincing theories the dredging and dumping have carried on, ignoring calls to halt while proper investigation took place. The deaths of what is left of the region’s sea life have also continued. Government wants its pet project to be completed quickly and has not been prepared to listen to any scientists urging a precautionary approach.
Developer’s profitable deal
As if this ecological disaster wasn’t bad enough it has now emerged that though the cost of conducting much of the clean-up has fallen on the public, ownership of the now improved land has been given away for less than £100. Put bluntly this would mean an asset now worth around £100mn belongs to a developer who would have recorded £99,999,900 profit on the deal the day it was signed.
Questions have been asked about corruption – but of course modern Britain doesn’t deal in corruption and we are expected to assume that all those involved in the development are acting in the best interests of the North East with little concern for any potential personal gain.
We therefore have to ask a different set of questions. What was going through the minds of the public officials who authorised this land sale? Were they put under any pressure by ministers? Who knew that this land was being sold off on the cheap and who selected the recipients of such extraordinary largesse? Has anyone who received this money donated funds to any political party which had members involved in the decision-making process?
And most important of all, what safeguards are being put in place to make sure the next ‘freeport’ that is developed isn’t an equally squalid tale of failed controls over public money and lack of care for the environment and the creatures living in it, as well as those whose livelihoods depend on them?