The struggle to re-open a government investigation into the causes of the North East marine life die-off has gained new support. After various leaks, the House of Commons select committee on environment, food and rural affairs has officially announced it is to hold a hearing on the mass deaths of crustaceans along the North East coast.
The committee will examine the conflicting theories about the cause of the deaths, ways of preventing a recurrence and the impact on local communities. Scientists from Hull, Newcastle and York Universities, who have just issued a joint report on the possible causes, will be invited to attend. A leak reported earlier by Rachel Bullock for ITV.com suggested that the hearing would be held with a view to opening a full inquiry into the case.
The session will be held on 25 October.
Background to the die-off
The marine life die-off in question has taken place over the past year. Last October tens of thousands of dead and dying sea creatures, mostly crabs and lobsters, washed up on the beaches of the North East and North Yorkshire. The fishermen along that coast found their usual catch had dwindled to almost nothing. The apex predators – porpoises and seals – also suffered and additional corpses of creatures that feed on the seabed washed ashore in the following months.
An investigation led by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), concluded that the die-off was due to a toxic algal bloom and the government closed the case. But local suspicions were raised by Defra’s own findings of high pyridine levels in the die-off crabs – up to 74 times higher than in control crabs off Cornwall. Plus the fact that dredging of the heavily-polluted River Tees took place immediately before the die-off, with river sediment dumped at off-shore depositary sites. A report commissioned by the Whitby Fishermens’ Association pointed the finger at pyridine, a toxic industrial chemical.
Then the joint university study, commissioned by the North East Fishing Collective and financed from crowdfunding, tested pyridine on crabs and produced computer simulations of dredging activity. Their preliminary findings reported that pyridine is especially toxic in crabs and the sealife die-off was concurrent with the off-shore dumping of dredged Tees river sediment.
Ben Houchen’s project and concerns from charities
The invitation to the scientists to report to the select committee will come as bad news to Conservative Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen, and his allies. Houchen is overseeing the high-speed preparation of derelict industrial sites on the banks of the Tees for his pet project, the multi-million pound Teesside Freeport. So far, £200mn of public funds has been spent on the clean-up alone.
The infrastructure development includes deepening South Bank Quay, already found to have highly toxic sediment. But any delay in dredging would disrupt Houchen’s schedule.
Houchen has already dismissed concerns from the leading national charity the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) who have called for a halt to dredging pending further investigation. He declared that the RSPB statement had come from a junior employee misinformed by an environmental activist – a claim refuted by the RSPB.
Now the Countryside Charity CPRE North and East Yorkshire has joined the fray. In a letter to Houchen the charity chair Jan Arger has demanded a pause to dredging on the Tees. She said:
“We would, in the light of the recent universities report, expect and anticipate, best practice and responsible environmental management practice to be followed and the dredge and dump practices to cease immediately until further research can identify the true causes of this biodiversity disaster.”
As concern about the environmental disaster swells nationally – aided by a Channel 4 News report – the Houchen camp is having more success in gagging local protest.
In July, three councils in the Tees Valley – Redcar, Middlesbrough and Hartlepool – passed motions at full council for action on the sealife deaths. The resolutions variously called for a reopening of the government investigation, a public meeting, financial help for the local fishermen, and joint scrutiny by the Tees Valley councils.
But then the action stalled. Redcar’s call to establish a joint local authority scrutiny panel of all five Tees Valley towns seems to have been thwarted, even where the motions for action had been carried.
All three motions were initiated by Labour councillors, but except for ‘no overall control’ Stockton, the party has no power on any Tees Valley council. Action on the motions is effectively out of Labour’s hands. Cllr Carl Quartermain who proposed the Redcar motion, told us that Middlesbrough and Stockton have asked for more information while Hartlepool and Darlington have rejected the concept.
In Hartlepool, in an August meeting with the motion’s proposers, the leaders of the Conservative-led coalition dismissed the idea of a joint scrutiny panel. Tory MP Jill Mortimer told the meeting that she was running her own investigation, but her office tell us there is no plan to publish her findings.
In a letter to the Hartlepool Leader, Cllr Rachel Creevy queried why Redcar’s offer of a joint scrutiny committee was refused. In a hint at suspicions of sabotage she continued:
“Did you have any discussions with Jill Mortimer, Ben Houchen or any other politicians about this prior to your decision?”
In Middlesbrough, the proposer Cllr David Branson has written to the mayor Andy Preston asking about progress. The motion co-proposer, Cllr Alma Hellaoui, has raised the die-off crisis at the board meeting of the River Tees Port Health Authority.
On the grassroots front, there are concerns on the Facebook group page Redcar Alert that comments about the die-off are being blocked. A lively community page, Redcar Alert had 26,400 members but was banned in January after their post about dredging reached 500,000 views.
The Facebook reasons for the ban were, “terrorism, selling ammunition, and promoting animal cruelty”. A serious (and unfounded) allegation against a group that posts local events and requests for a plumber.
The re-formed Redcar Alert page now has 7,100 members. Comments on the post carrying the CPRE letter are being blocked, the group administrator tells us. To verify this claim, I commented “Good to see they’re getting involved” on the CPRE post. My comment was hidden by Facebook. Their explanation: “Your comment goes against our Community Standards”.
Houchen is a big spender on Facebook, clocking up a bill of over £70,000 for social and political ads in the last four years. His Facebook page depiction of the Utopian paradise that is Teesside is devoid of critics who are promptly blocked.
Redcar Alert’s administrator is continuing to investigate their bans.
Meanwhile the video is now out of the Reclaim our Sea beach protest on 2 October, nationally about beach and river pollution and in the North East about the die-off. The pop-up event was organised in a couple of weeks, the organisers suspending its promotion to observe the royal death mourning protocol. Yet it was still a success.
Can Houchen hold back the riptide of dissent? Or is he like King Canute but without the wisdom?
We have requested a comment from Ben Houchen.