Tees Valley Metropolitan Mayor Ben Houchen has spoken out against concerns over the local sealife die-offs that have occurred over the past year. Last October tens of thousands of dead and dying crustaceans, mostly crabs and lobsters, washed up on the North East. shores from Seaham down to Whitby. The corpses that piled up on the beaches were mainly of creatures that fed from the seabed. Apex predators – seals and porpoises – also suffered.
More waves of the die-off arrived in February and May this year. A report by Defra blamed an algae bloom but locals including the fishermen were not convinced. After generations of harvesting the sea the fisherman had no memory of an event at this scale. Their catch had dwindled to a fraction of the usual haul.
Tim Deere-Jones, an independent expert commissioned by the Whitby Fishermen’s Association, pointed out Defra’s own finding that the industrial chemical pyridine in the dead crabs was up to 74 times higher than the Cornish controls.
Defra has not reviewed industrial users of pyridine in the Tees Valley nor the pyridine in the riverbed and sediment, a waste product legacy of one and a half centuries of coking and iron production along the river. Slag heaps were also piled up on the vast, old ISS steelworks site, currently being prepared for Houchen’s pet project, the new Teesside Freeport.
The first wave of deaths occurred a day after dredging was completed by the dredger ORCA, which in ten days had removed 148,000 tonnes of sediment from the Tees and dumped it in approved depository sites at sea. From this month 1.9 million tonnes are expected to be dredged to deepen the river in preparation for the Freeport.
TV interview with Ben Houchen
In an interview for BBC Radio 4 Today Houchen claimed the concerns over pyridine were a conspiracy theory:
“It’s not just pyridine, they think it’s Agent Orange apparently from secret factories in the Second World War. We’ve also been told that it’s Russian submarines trying to cause problems for the UK government. I’m sure you’re not suggesting and they are suggesting that we do testing for these types of completely conspiratorial ideas because if you do that we’ll never get this development underway and finished and that’s equally as damaging to the local people who in our local area want jobs and they want money in their pocket to look after themselves and their families”
Middlesbrough Labour MP Andy McDonald responded in a tweet:
Local council motions on dredging
The three councils of Middlesbrough, Redcar, and Hartlepool have passed council motions for a pause to dredging pending the outcome of the independent report they are demanding, plus additional monitoring. According to Councillor Carl Quartermain, Redcar’s Director for Adults and Communities has taken the first steps to establish a cross-party, Joint Tees Scrutiny Committee with the four other local councils to oversee the matter.
Whether they will receive the cooperation of Mayor Houchen however is questionable. He has not attended one scrutiny meeting at Tees Valley Combined Authority since he became mayor.
Hundreds of demonstrators flocked to the North East seaside on Sunday 28 August to form a human chain along the die-off beaches in protest against government inaction over the environmental disaster.