The die-off of crustaceans and other sea creatures along the North East coast was raised twice on Thursday 8 September in the House of Commons. While the salvos – from MP for Stockton North Alex Cunningham – were deftly deflected by government spokespeople, the exchanges revealed new developments in the case.
In October last year, tens of thousands of dead marine creatures washed up in piles along the North East beaches from Seaham down to Whitby and Runswick Bay. Mostly crabs and lobsters, the carnage also included other sea life that feeds on the sea bed. Apex predators seals and porpoises also suffered. Local fishermen found that their catch had dwindled to a small fraction of the usual haul.
The die-off repeated in new waves of corpses covering the beaches in February and May this year, and stretches of sea even now remain empty of life.
The government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), concluded that the cause was an algal bloom and closed the case, but residents, environmentalists and fishermen were dubious, suspecting the dredged toxic riverbed sediment from the River Tees that is dumped at sea.
The mass mortalities occurred immediately after the dredger Orca had spent ten days dredging the River Tees and dumping its load at sea. In all over 214,000 tonnes of sediment were deposited at sea by various dredgers in September last year.
An expert report commissioned by the Whitby Fishermen’s Association pointed out Defra’s own finding that the level of the industrial chemical pyridine was up to 74 times higher in the die-off crabs than in control corpses in Cornwall.
Defra has not investigated pyridine poisoning or the source of the chemical. As a waste product of the coking and iron industries, pyridine could be a historical riverbed contaminant. Or the pyridine processed by industries along the river for a myriad of uses might have polluted the sediment.
Questions in the Commons
In Topical Questions to Defra in the Commons Chamber on Thursday, Alex Cunningham asked:
“I hope that the Minister is aware of the ecological disaster off the coast of Teesside and North Yorkshire that has had a devastating effect on the fishing industry. Catches are now less than 10% of what they were, and it appears that a large part of our sea is dead or dying. When will ministers recognise that they cannot rely on the conclusion that an algal bloom was probably the cause of this disaster, order a more comprehensive study into what is happening and come up with solutions to save our sea?”
In reply Defra minister Mark Spencer opened with:
“I pay tribute to the Tees Valley Mayor, Ben Houchen, who has done a lot to highlight the issue.”
A strange comment given that Tory mayor, Houchen has tried to silence concerns about the catastrophe, claiming they are conspiracy theories. In a tweet he also dismissed the RSPB’s request for a halt to dredging pending further investigation.
Spencer then repeated the algal bloom theory, “the algal bloom was a huge factor.”
So far so predictable. Then he dropped a clue:
“The Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science [ Cefas] … is continuing to carry out tests on material from the North East coast.”
This begs the question: if the government agency Cefas is still conducting tests, why has dredging overseen by Houchen’s South Tees Development Corporation begun on the South Bank Quay, possibly the most polluted section of the Tees?
The answer lies in the current regeneration of industrial sites along the river, being carried out at breakneck speed in preparation for the Teesside Freeport. The project will be the largest freeport in the country and is Houchen’s flagship development.
According to a special report in Private Eye, cash from the public purse so far totalling £250m has been spent mostly on securing, decontaminating and remediating the freeport sites. The most important location is the heavily polluted former SSI steelworks which spans 870 acres.
Coastal Communities debate
On the Thursday afternoon, Cunningham raised the matter again in the coastal communities debate. He mentioned university research commissioned by the North East Fishing Collective which has yet to reach the public domain:
“I know that the results of an independently led university investigation will soon be available, but I can advise the House today that its very early results appear to support the pyridine theory. Our coastal community believes that this warrants further, comprehensive investigations by the Environment Agency into the presence of pyridine in the Tees and the possible consequences of that for marine life.”
The research results will be good news for the fishermen’s legal action to prove the government investigation was not “conducted in a lawful and thorough manner”. But it will be bad news for their livelihoods and the marine ecosystem as deeper dredging goes ahead.
Meanwhile, local concerns are echoed by national disgust at the untreated sewage polluting beaches and rivers around the country. The successful Save Our Sea human chain demonstration in August along the die-off beaches will be succeeded by a national demonstration against pollution along beaches and riverbanks around the country. The protest on Sunday 2 October has been called by the Facebook group Reclaim Our Sea.