After the hearing of the Commons Select Committee for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on Tuesday 25 October, Secretary of State for Environment Food and Rural Affairs, Thérèse Coffey, will do little to placate either side.
In October 2021, thousands of dead and dying crustaceans washed up on the beaches of the North East and North Yorkshire. Crabs were the most affected. More corpses appeared earlier this year but other sealife such as porpoises and seals – the apex predators – also suffered.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) blamed a toxic algal bloom and closed the case, but local residents and fishermen suspected the culprit was a toxin in sediment dredged from the Tees and dumped at sea. More recently, dredging has intensified to improve access to South Bank Quay.
Defra’s own inquiry found the industrial chemical pyridine in the die-off crabs was up to 74 times higher than in the control crabs in Cornwall.
New research commissioned by the fishing industry involved scientists from Newcastle, Durham, Hull and York Universities. The study tested pyridine on crabs and used computer modelling to track the spread of dredged sediment in offshore waters. The scientists found that pyridine has a particularly toxic effect on crabs. Computer simulations of the North Sea currents and tides during and after the autumn 2021 dredging activity showed that pyridine would rapidly travel along the coastline, with areas around Hartlepool and Redcar the worst affected
The Select Committee
The committee decided to hold its hearing to weigh the conflicting theories for the die-off. The two sides invited to give testimony each presented their own case.
Conclusions and recommendations
The committee’s letter to Coffey called for further investigation, including more extensive sampling of the sediment in the Tees Estuary, to create a map of potential sources of pyridine near maintenance dredging.
The research, the committee reported, must involve collaboration between government Agencies and the wider scientific community, including independent verification of testing.
The committee seems to have swallowed the Tory Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen’s allegations of scientist secrecy with their comment:
“We hope this would also include Dr Caldwell [of Newcastle University] sharing his research data with all interested parties.”
In a press release the university has already declared the scientists’ intention to share their work as has Dr Caldwell in a Twitter thread.
The committee also recommended that the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser
should urgently appoint an expert independent scientific panel to review the evidence for both theories and report back its findings as soon as possible.
While the committee advised that the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) should “urgently review” the dredging activity in the Tees, they did not call for a pause to dredging.
“We recommend that the MMO explore… what steps could be taken to reduce the risk associated with capital and maintenance dredging”
The committee advised that the MMO must “ensure that all the current conditions on its licence are met and should include pyridine in the testing as part of any future licence approval process.”
The committee letter also requested that all dredged material should be tested for pyridine and any with dangerous levels of the chemical should not be disposed of at sea. Testing for pyridine prior to dredging is not currently a legal requirement.
Testing for pyridine as advised by the committee is viewed as a temporary measure however, when the chemical, a coking industry waste product as well as an industrial ingredient, could well be a permanent legacy pollutant.
A disappointment to many will be the advice to continue dredging:
“We believe that maintenance dredging should be kept to the minimum level needed to keep the port operational until the expert panel’s investigation is completed.”
Until the cause of the mass die-off is confirmed, more care should be taken in approving capital dredging, the committee said.
“..The committee considers that the MMO should routinely check for pyridine as part of the testing and approval process for any new capital dredging works. Any current capital dredging work and new licences issued after the conclusion of the expert panel’s investigation must take account of the outcome of that investigation.”
Where this leaves the current deep dredging of highly toxic sediment at South Bank Quay is open to question.
A dredging moratorium is what Houchen had been dreading, keen to crack on with his flagship project, Teesside Freeport. He has called anyone with concerns about the environmental disaster “conspiracy theorists”, likening their concerns to claims about secret chemical weapons. Opposition to the dredging is led, he had declared, by Extinction Rebellion and the Labour Party.
The committee’s findings will not fully satisfy anyone. The continued dredging will not be welcome news to many residents or fishermen. The additional investigation in the national spotlight of parliament will be awkward for Ben Houchen who prefers to have full control over his publicity.
After the hearing Houchen took the battle to Twitter:
“Not only is there zero evidence of any die offs since 2021 – 11 months BEFORE we were dredging – but the evidence shows the exact opposite with NEIFCA [North Eastern Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority] also reporting in September of 2022 that there is ‘no ongoing concern to the environment’… “
Backing Houchen are the local Tory MPs. Jacob Young MP said:
“The experts are saying that [dredging] isn’t an issue. The idea that we would then allow that to inhibit development on the River Tees would be damaging for Teesside in the long run”.
In contrast, Alex Cunningham Labour MP for Stockton South, stated in a press release,
“When Andy McDonald [MP] and I issued a call to pause capital dredging in favour of further investigation, the Tees Valley Mayor decried us as playing party politics and for “salivating” at the potential loss of jobs and investment. Nothing could be further from the truth; we just believe the people of Teesside and further afield deserve real answers to the ecological disaster blighting our shoreline.”
The fishermen will welcome the committee’s request for a government fund to support them and finance the restoration of crab and lobster stocks.