The Independent Expert Assessment of Unusual Crustacean Mortality in the North-east of England in 2021 and 2022 finally saw the light of day on 20 January, as did its authors, who have been a closely guarded secret since the report was commissioned in December 2022.
Given that the panel was only convened in mid-December, they’ve had a lot on their plate. Within the space of little more than four weeks they have rubbished the two existing explanations for the marine die-off in Tees Bay. Defra’s Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB) theory, and the alternative, that the toxin pyridine is to blame. Then they came up with a theory of their own. It leaves you wondering if they’ve even had time to eat their Christmas pudding yet.
The report sends shock waves
For those of us who openly questioned the independence of the panel from the outset, the thorough trashing of Defra’s algal bloom theory came, initially, as something of a shock. Harmful algal bloom, the panel says, is a broad-spectrum killer. Yet the initial die-off in the autumn of 2021 was almost exclusively of crab and lobster. Moreover, the crustaceans were observed to twitch as they died, something that is not consistent with morality caused by algal bloom. Defra then went on to claim that the algal bloom was dispersed by a storm on 5 October, and therefore either ignored subsequent die-off that has continued up to the present or put it down to bad weather.
Which leads us on to the second shock; the panel acknowledged all the subsequent die-off, and even produced charts showing when and where they occurred and what species they affected. In only slightly uncertain terms, they confirmed what the region’s fishers had been convinced of all along – that Defra had just cobbled together a flimsy explanation for the die-off and doubled down when challenged on it. (The slight uncertainty being that they thought much of it, but not all of it, would be storm wash up, just like Defra said it was)
The question is, if the panel was not truly independent of Defra’s influence, why were they so brutal in their treatment of the algal bloom theory? Could they not have been a bit more accommodating? After all, the brief they were handed, seriously constrained them.
In November 2022, Tees Valley Monitor presented a description of the brief prepared for the independent panel (Poison Earth Part 2: The Government Shields the Polluters on Teesside) in which the conclusions it was to reach were clearly spelled out. In short, pyridine contamination was to be found not to be the cause. They were clearly warned that giving any credence to this theory could have significant cost implications for Defra.
Suspicion about the panel’s subservience to Defra’s own agenda were only strengthened when, within the past week, it was revealed that, contrary to what had been advertised initially, the panel was not convened and chaired by government chief scientific advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance. Sir Patrick Vallance had passed that task back to Defra’s chief scientific advisor, Gideon Henderson and effectively washed his hands of it. Was it because he could see that there were political agenda behind the façade of scientific investigation?
Was he mistaken in this? Has the panel turned out to be more robustly independent than we all thought? Well, as a matter of fact, possibly not. Probably not, really.
HAB, Defra’s albatross
It is not difficult to see that finally divesting themselves of the Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB) theory for the marine die-off must now come as a relief to Defra (we use the term ‘theory’ euphemistically here). After all, it had long since been a source of embarrassment to them, and the more time went on the more embarrassing it became. The refusal to listen to any evidence that conflicted with it; the fact that, in the first instance, marine pollution consultant, Tim Deere-Jones, who produced an independent report on the die-off in early 2022, was able to put forward a theory of pyridine contamination based on data that he had obtained from Defra that they themselves had ignored; and then there were the subsequent incidents, all of which they duly denied, and put down to the weather. Meanwhile the fishers and other campaigners were winning the battle of hearts and minds with the public.
The final straw was the EFRA Committee hearing where their representatives could not disguise the fact that for months the department had been doing absolutely no further investigation. But now it’s all behind them. The panel has published its report, and Defra has been reborn. Reborn with a new theory to cling to. As Gideon Henderson said in Friday’s press conference,
“As more people are aware, people are reporting [crab deaths] more frequently… It’s hard to tell if it’s unusual until we collate all the data.”
In short, the panel did Defra a favour by shredding their original theory. And now they have a purpose again. They can start all over again collating data because the panel helpfully provided them with a new theory.
Some inconvenient facts …
The new theory is that there is a 33 – 66% chance that the mortality was the product of a hitherto unknown virus attacking crab and lobster.
While the idea that the die-off may have been caused by an unknown virus or parasite does not feature prominently in the body of the report, it does feature in the introduction, and, as reported in New Scientist, it featured heavily in the press briefing that accompanied the report’s publication. Hartlepool fisherman, Stan Rennie, saw it. And Stan has a keen sense of when someone is trying the pull the wool over his eyes. When he saw that the report was touting an unknown virus he emailed Defra, and copied us in.
Now call us cynical, but we think his letter may have landed in the bin this morning. So, we’ve linked it to this article, just to ensure that it doesn’t go to waste. For the time being, however, we’ve picked out a single sentence that, by rights, demands a response from the panel:
“Do shellfish parasites kill seaweed?”
Because it’s not just crustaceans that are dying. The kelp has also been poisoned, something which the panel chose not to attend to. And there are reports of extensive die-back of kelp beds at Hartlepool Headland today (and accusations that this is linked to capital dredging currently being undertaken by Able UK in the Seaton Channel, home to significant deposits of PCBs). And what’s the big deal about kelp beds? They’re nature’s carbon capture and storage facilities. So, they come in handy.
The report also observes that, in 2021 “relatively large numbers of curled octopus (Eledone Cirrosa) were observed up dead on the shore at similar locations to, and approximately one month after the crabs.”
This information came from North East Inshore Fishing and Conservation Authority (NEIFCA), on 29 November 2021, and the report stated that hundreds of dead octopus were discovered. There are two things to mention about this die-off, the first of which is that, until Friday, no one else knew about it; not the fishers, not the other campaigners. Defra kept this one quiet. The other point being now to modify Stan Rennie’s question:
“Do shellfish parasites kill octopus as well as seaweed?”
Another feature of the crisis that the report does not explain is whether the new mystery virus/parasite, for which no evidence has been presented, that started killing only crab and lobster in autumn 2021, is the same mystery virus/parasite that killed the octopus in November of that year, mussels and razor clams the following September, and shrimp in November and again earlier this month, as well as seeing off the kelp in between times, or are there several mystery viruses invading the North Sea at the moment?
The panel presented no evidence to corroborate their theory, just a statistical probability of the likelihood that it’s true. And even then, they offer no evidence that establishes what this probability is based on. Essentially, you don’t need to convene a panel of twelve eminent scientists to come up with an off-the-cuff idea like this; it could have been done just as well by a junior employee at Defra acting without authorisation.
“It puts the pyridine story to bed,” says panel member, Crispin Halsall
But if these two sections of the report are lightweight, the third is most certainly not. The third is detailed and earnest. “It puts the pyridine story to bed,” says slightly overenthusiastic panel member Crispin Halsall of Lancaster University, where the ‘pyridine story’ is the result of research undertaken by a group of academics led by marine biologist, Dr Gary Caldwell, of Newcastle University.
It is here that the report fulfils the brief the panel was given – get Caldwell.
Because in the eyes of certain stakeholders in the freeport, Caldwell’s work is subversive. And Crispin Halsall clearly relishes the brief. To refer to another scientist’s research as a ‘story’ is unquestionably derogatory. This goes beyond criticism.
For no given reason the panel’s report lists a number of contaminants that are common in all UK coastal waters, and then go on to explain that pyridine is one of a number of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) “that are released as part of the post-mortem aging/decay process of biological tissues.”
As they give no explanation of why they provide this information, we must draw our own inference, which is that it is an attempt to deny that Tees Bay is any different from any other UK coastal water body. Perhaps they are not familiar with the work of the Centre for the Environment, Fisheries, and Aquaculture Science (Cefas), one Defra’s partner agencies, responsible for monitoring contamination, which has, in the past, produced reports on contamination levels in dredging disposal sites, the most toxic of which is consistently, and by a wide margin, Tees Bay A.
It goes on to explain that the disposal of contaminated estuary sediment is highly regulated by the Marine Management Organisation (MMO), adding, “the concentrations of such contaminants in sediments proposed for dredging must be assessed according to the site-specific requirements of the MMO, advised by Cefas”, which is their way of saying that the MMO sets aside the environmental standards set by Cefas when it comes to the Tees, a fact that it has openly admitted, as Tees Valley Monitor reported in June 2022. It is surprising that the panel completely failed to undertake any critical assessment of the role of the MMO in licensing the activities that may be responsible for more recent die-off.
There is a curious disconnect here. While Defra’s HAB theory is brutally dismissed, and, by implication, their scientists’ work exposed as careless, there is no corresponding concern for the lack of rigour of the partner agencies, the MMO and Cefas. The agencies whose work is most closely implicated with the freeport development remain sacrosanct.
Section 5.3.2 – from pyridine story to fairy story
Section 5.3.2, entitled “Industrial sources of pyridine” sets out to demonstrate that, in actual fact, there’s not much pyridine around on the banks of the Tees estuary.
So, the principal sources it considers are the Vertellus plant on the North bank which used pyridine extensively in its products and transported its effluent to the Northumbrian Water Treatment plant (except when it, allegedly, just dumped it illegally at Seal Sands, a detail overlooked by the panel), and the steelworks on the South bank.
“Pyridine and pyridine derivatives are efficiently removed by microbial degradation under a variety of environmental conditions typically encountered in soils, sludges and natural waters, with environmental persistence or residence time considered on the order of days”.
This is in the context of waste product undergoing effluent treatment at the Northumbrian Water Treatment Facility. But the report then claims that there will be little pyridine around on the Teesworks site:
“Demolition of old industrial buildings, such as the Redcar Coke Ovens, are highly unlikely to be significant sources of pyridine given the volatile nature of this chemical. Evaporative losses over time will now result in only trace levels possibly associated with residual bituminous coal or tars found around these sites.”
So, pyridine is a volatile organic compound (VOC) and will evaporate. And any pyridine residues on the site will be long gone. They might have added that pyridine will also biodegrade in soil. Perhaps they didn’t think of it, or perhaps they know that the ‘old industrial buildings’ do not, on the whole stand on soil but on a layer of basic slag between two and ten metres thick. Basic slag that is much more porous than soil, allowing waste liquids such as pyridine to percolate down into ground water, where pyridine is known to accumulate.
Now, at this point we started to wonder if the panel was just composed of marine experts and didn’t have anyone with a background in geology. So, we had a look at the specialisms of the panel members to see if there’s anyone who should have been wise to these facts. And one name stood out – Crispin Halsall of the University of Lancaster, who specialises in ‘the fate of industrial chemicals and factors that affect their longevity in the environment’. Crispin Halsall must know that there is a whole lot more that needs to be understood than is contained in the cursory statement given in this report. Perhaps that is why, in contrast to other parts of the text, the claims about the evaporation of pyridine are made without supporting references.
Misconstruing the research
The experiments conducted by Dr Caldwell and his team set out to determine at what concentration pyridine became toxic to crab. No prior research into this had been carried out. The panel compared this with later research carried out at the University of Portsmouth, which appeared not to support Caldwell’s findings. As things were getting technical, we reached out for help, and did what the panel did not dare to do – we asked Gary Caldwell, who told us that he couldn’t see a problem because the two sets of results were consistent with each other.
The research team also modelled how pyridine disturbed by dredging at Teesmouth would disperse around the coast. The panel also objected to the way that this was done, saying that the model had notionally employed an unrealistic quantity of pyridine. However, the research paperclearly states that the model was intended only to highlight dispersion, not the quantity of dispersed material. And so it goes on.
Had the panel been genuinely concerned to get to the truth, the members would have questioned Dr Caldwell and challenged him to defend his research. Furthermore, they adopted a very narrow view of the issues involved. In particular, they are under the misimpression that, were they to succeed in trashing the research into pyridine contamination, the whole issue of chemical contamination through dredging goes away. It doesn’t.
At the time of writing, we are receiving further reports of die-back of kelp beds, now extending southwards down the coast. That die-back coincides with the dredging of the Seaton Channel, dredging that has been licensed for disposal at sea by the MMO, the very organisation whose integrity the panel refused to challenge, but whose indifference to the ecological damage caused by the dredging of highly contaminated waterways is at the heart of the present crisis.
To kill an octopus
Let’s be quite clear, the work of this independent panel has been of enormous benefit to Defra. Until only recently their algal bloom theory brought endless derision, now that’s all in the past. Now there is a new, equally spurious, to cling to. But the wonderful thing about the new one is that it’s not theirs. They successfully outsourced it. The independent panel owns it. And as the PCBs from the dredging in Seaton Channel drift southwards on the current, they will own them too. This travesty is their travesty.
Gary Caldwell represents a clear and present danger to the freeport development. Before dredging for the freeport even started, his research indicated that contamination sufficient to cause massive marine die-off was being discharged from the Tees Estuary. And when it comes to contamination, the Tees has a whole lot more to give. The ideologues of the freeport need Caldwell silenced. And the panel has done its level best to deliver that for them.
And thus, the members of the independent panel have found a new friend. None other than Tees Valley mayor, Ben Houchen, the man exonerated (his word) by their report, the man who, with their support, will shortly oversee the dumping of nearly 2 million tonnes of toxic sediment at Tees Bay C, in pursuit of an economic miracle. ‘Jobs before crabs’ as one of his acolytes said recently.
Well, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, is there?