Steve Thomas is a surfer, riding the waves off Saltburn beach. There’s a group of them, chasing the surf in all weathers, year-round. Saltburn isn’t California but they don’t care.
Normally they have a cavalier attitude towards getting ill. Catching the bacterial infection du jour is less a cause for concern and more a rite of passage.
New sickness at Saltburn
But the new sickness at Saltburn is unprecedented. Steve tells me how on 3 February, he had different symptoms. Like the rest of his group, the end of his tongue and the roof of his mouth tingled. He had diarrhoea and passed blood, and he had ear and eye infections. His joints from his fingers to his legs ached for three days. He was ill for ten days. Like other surfers, his wetsuit was covered in black and grey particles.
In mid-November some 30 surfers were off South Gare next to the Tees mouth. All but one became ill. The only one escaping sickness that day was on a paddle board and so had spent less time in the water.
In the last 18 months, the surfers have experienced a greater chance of sickness, depending on the direction of the wind and the currents. Steve has been sick several times in recent weeks. Some surfers say that they smell the stench of outflows that spews from Northumbrian Water Ltd’s nearby plant and an outflow on the beach, while others like Steve smell nothing.
Freeport project and dredging
Their illness has coincided with remediation work for the Teesside Freeport project, dreamt up by Tory Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen. The whole Freeport scheme includes the 2,400-acre Teesworks site – the former SSI steel plant.
Many have blamed the site demolitions and associated dredging for the local mass die-off of marine creatures, especially crabs and lobsters, since September 2021.
The second phase of capital dredging of the South Bank Quay began on 31 January with the vessel Athena. Over one million tonnes of dredged sediment is being dumped at sea. This deep gouging of the Tees riverbed is to improve access for ships delivering to South Bank Quay for the proposed SeAH wind turbine production plant. Contaminating the sediment is 170 years of industrial pollution, plus organic waste and bacteria.
Tests at the quay by consultants Royal Haskoning for the Tees Valley Combined Authority (TVCA) showed levels of many toxins above the Environment Agency Cefas Action Level 1. The pollutants found included metals; carcinogenic Polyaromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs); Polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs); and Organotins.
At one location, Borehole 34, the test showed mercury, cadmium, zinc, chromium, copper and lead above Cefas Action Level 2 – material too dangerous to be dumped at sea and destined for disposal on land.
Phase I of capital dredging from September to November last year involved the removal of this sediment, slopped into piles next to the riverbank then taken to mounds to dry out prior to landfill.
Haskoning excluded test data for Borehole 34 from their water quality calculations as that more poisonous sediment would be removed using grabs. The consultants could not predict however that the safer “closed bucket” method of sediment removal would become a hazard as the lid could not be closed, dripping toxic sludge back into the river.
Other routine dredging
There’s also the maintenance dredging by PD Ports – routine work five days a week to keep the Tees waterway clear for river traffic. The dredgers clear sand and silt washed in on the North Sea tide, but could also pick up toxins from the Teesside Chemical Complex (the largest in Britain), plus sewage from Northumbrian Water Ltd at Bran Sands next to Teesmouth.
The routine dredging could also stir up pollution run-off from the many demolition projects underway along the river’s southern bank to prepare the Teesworks site. Then there’s other dredging on the river. Earlier this year, Able UK commissioned a dredger for a stretch near the northern bank.
Steve used to work as an R&D engineer on the Teesworks site when it was owned by British Steel. The level of pollution at each plant determined the extent to which the workers’ skin was dyed by the dust. “The worst was the South Bank coke ovens, the men there were yellow.”
Last autumn the Teesworks structures, including the coke ovens, were blown up in ten controlled explosions, creating clouds of toxic dust that rained down on river and neighbourhoods before drifting out to sea. In every blowdown planning application, the requirement for an environmental impact assessment (which also considers human health) was waived by Redcar’s planning officers.
Having heard the same story of illness from four surfers, conservationist Sally Bunce lodged an alert with Redcar and Cleveland Council’s environmental protection team. In reply, principal environmental protection officer Tracy Hilton recommended that surfers visit their GPs and advised that Redcar Council had no responsibility outside of the May to September bathing season. She also argued:
“It would be inappropriate to assume at this stage that the ill health could be attributed to any dredging carried out within the River Tees without a specific diagnosis from a medical professional.”
Concerns from fishers
The sea creatures have shown no signs of recovery from the ecological disaster. Local fishers still complain of dwindled hauls worth less than the cost of fishing. Matthew Haswell of the Lauren Lu fishing vessel posted a picture on Facebook of their paltry catch on 17 February, saying:
“It has cost us over £300 in fuel today and we will receive approximately £200 for our catch.”
The Times has reported a collapse in the local prawn stocks with a sea creature dead zone stretching ten miles out from the coast. The beaches are currently littered with dead starfish and mussels.
The official Environment Agency line is that the mass sea life die-offs of 2021 and 2022 are history, the cause being an undiscovered pathogen. They have discounted their first explanation, of an algal bloom. Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey has confirmed in a letter to the parliamentary environment, food and rural affairs committee that no further action will be taken by her department.
Back to Steve
Steve still surfs. While he reserves his vitriol for Mayor Houchen, he bristles at comments that he should give up a sport he has loved since he was a child. After his brother died, he spent more time with his grandparents. As he helped his grandad with his ice cream van at Saltburn carpark, he’d watch the surfers take their boards out to the waves. A passion was borne from a way of escaping the sadness at home. Now he resents advice to give it up, after all, should kids still go paddling, and should dogs still go on the beach?
From his house on Redcar waterfront, bought for a song in a rundown town, Steve looks out onto the dying sea.