At the end of March, visitors to Saltburn beach met with a gruesome sight, the shoreline carpeted with dead mussels, razor clams, starfish and other sea creatures some in heaps six inches deep along with black material on 200 metres of sands.
The carnage stirred memories of the first mass wash-up from Seaton down to Whitby of crustaceans and other creatures 18 months ago. Since then the fishers have seen a fall of 95% in their haul. The boats now have to travel nine miles out to sea to find fish, and fuel costs dwarf the value of the catch.
There have been waves of wash-ups since. The crabs and lobsters are less obvious lately, possibly as most are now dead, but witnesses have also seen porpoise, clams, razor clams, mussels, starfish, sea hairs, flat fish, dabs, shrimp, sprats.
Then there are the newly-weaned seals, stranded, starving or already dead, and easily prone to fatal mouth rot. The youngsters usually scavenge the seabed when they are first weaned but it seems there’s little food for them to find.
For the past 18 months, the Environment Agency (EA) and Conservative politicians have blamed natural events. But public suspicions are focused on pollution stirred up by demolitions at the 2,400 acre former SSI steelworks site along the southern bank of the River Tees, and associated dredging.
There have been calls for a pause to dredging the Tees and the dumping of sediment at sea, until the cause of the die-offs is known.
The current marine mortalities are due to the weather, says the EA, the black material on the beaches sea coal, brought ashore by storms.
But local seal rescuer and former police officer Sally Bunce disagrees. The high levels of sea coal that have appeared have not been seen for the past 40 years she tells me. Is this really sea coal, or actually river sediment from the Tees dredging that was dumped at sea?
The storms that were blamed measured 5 on the Beaufort Scale, argues Sally, whilst a storm measures a 10. The Beaufort Scale 5 is a “mild breeze”. “The ‘storm’ was three weeks earlier ” she says, “and it was flat calm for days before this”.
The water samples Sally took measured 5-6 Ph, well below the 8.1 Ph acidity of seawater. This could indicate the presence of Tees freshwater in the mix and point again to dredging.
The Facebook jury
Facebook’s local groups posted mixed opinions. Some strove to reassure that wash-ups of sea coal and shellfish were very common with the spring tides, while others disagreed.
Heather Freyja Rose Lofthouse posted,
“Normally after a storm we get sea coal, and seaweed, and the odd creatures entangled. Yet there was no seaweed, just a vast amount of creatures. I had seen the vessel linked to dredging off the coast very recently – last week for a number of days. Something smells fishy….”
Diane Stead commented:
“This cannot be a coincidence…stormy weather does not kill sealife and if it was storms why no debris or seaweed.. And strange it’s Saltburn way the way the tide is flowing from the dredging. Do ppl think we are thick? Are these getting tested too?”
Seeking the truth
The debate is over the question: are the events natural or the outcome of pollution? As the row has escalated, a research tug-of-war has played out.
Soon after the original die-off, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) ran a battery of tests. The results found pyridine in the flesh of local crabs at up to 74 times the levels in control crabs off the Cornish coast.
Pyridine is an industrial chemical that does not occur in nature. It’s a product of coke production and iron and steel processing. Consequently, it’s found in pollution that includes other steel waste products – like slag in the contaminated land along the Tees.
While pyridine is also manufactured for a myriad of applications there is no current processing of the chemical on Teesside.
After a further investigation Defra confirmed the die off cause was an algal bloom. But early this year a panel of experts convened by Environment Minister Thérèse Coffey reported that death from algae or pyridine was unlikely and that an unknown pathogen was the probable culprit.
A report by environmental scientist Tim Deere Jones, commissioned by the Whitby Fishermen’s Association, concluded that pyridine was the most likely cause of the die-offs.
Research by scientists at four northern universities (York, Durham, Newcastle and Hull), also commissioned by the fishers, showed that pyridine poisoning in crabs reproduced the neurological symptoms of the die-off – twitching and flipping in somersaults before death. The researchers’ computer modelling showed that the likely spread of the chemical in the sea duplicated the die-off area.
The storm rages
This is no squabble between ivory-tower academics. Millions of pounds and valuable reputations hang on the narrative of this being a rare natural event. The fishing industry meanwhile is hoping for compensation if the disaster was human induced.
Could it be pollution? The Tees is one of the most contaminated waterways in Britain, boasting 170 years of a heavy industry that has left a poisonous legacy. Teesside is now home to the largest chemical processing cluster in the UK. Then there’s the sewage outflows from a heavily populated conurbation.
But at the centre of the row is the old SSI steelworks which closed in 2015. It is 2,400 acres of contaminated land. With a Control Of Major Accident Hazards (COMAH) Upper Tier registration it is deemed “hazardous to the aquatic environment” and “toxic to aquatic life”.
Much of the location is toxic ‘made ground’ – mostly the slag heap material used for reclaiming land. The site’s coke ovens produced slag waste for over a century.
The location’s planning application documents for Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council show a patchwork of heavy pollution in the soil and groundwater including: cyanide; lead; mercury; zinc; asbestos; benzene; dibenzofuran; 1.2 dichloroethane; thiocyanate; ammoniacal nitrogen; sulphate; VOCs (volatile organic compounds); NAPLs (non-aqueous phase lipids classed as persistent organic pollutants); PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons); and TPH (total petroleum hydrocarbons). We could go on.
The 2019 South Tees regeneration master plan advised that full-scale decontamination was not financially viable, advocating a “do minimum/do necessary approach”. The cheapest option was to remediate by mostly covering poisoned ground. So far, £276m of public money has been spent on demolition and remediation. The final bill will be £482mn.
Documents from March 2022’s South Tees Development Corporation (STDC) board meeting show the cost of demolition, construction and remediation will be over £180mn in the financial year to 2023.
There are great plans for the site, renamed Teesworks. South Tees Development Corporation (STDC) created TeesWorks Ltd, the joint venture that now controls it, 90% of which has been gifted to developers Chris Musgrave and Martin Corney.
Teesworks is part of the government’s flagship Teesside Freeport which includes the port, South Bank Quay and Teesside Airport.
Is the Teesside Freeport project a triumph of hope over experience? Abandoned by the EU and the David Cameron government, freeports were recently also condemned by the Treasury. They are dismissed as diverting existing investment and offering a welcome mat to crime.
But Teesside Freeport offers a golden carrot: 20,000 jobs for a region shaken by the loss of 5,000 jobs linked to the SSI closure.
The figure of 20,000 jobs has been inflated from the 16,000 estimate in the original document “A Proposal For A National Free Zone Policy”, commissioned by Conservative Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen. The jobs estimate relied on two case studies: Jurong Island in Singapore and Dubai’s Jebel Ali, which both keep costs down with breadline wages for migrant labour.
The number of jobs was contingent on attracting sufficient investment. So far Teesworks has announced one investor: SeaH who will be building wind turbines at South Bank Quay. When Sally Bunce requested details of other committed investors under Freedom of Information regulations, she was refused the data.
War of the words
Many residents suspect a cover-up, given the information management by government and politicians.
- For instance Defra meeting minutes obtained by OpenDemocracy showed the department’s agencies to be under pressure to discount the pyridine theory.
- The names of Coffey’s ‘independent expert panel’ were kept secret until publication of their report.
- The minutes of STDC board meetings and supporting documents are frequently hidden, claiming exemption under the Local Government Act.
Then there’s the politicians’ hostility on social media. Houchen and Simon Clarke MP have rejected a pause to dredging, blaming a conspiracy theory woven by their political enemies. Last October, in response to a letter from local Labour MPs Alex Cunningham and Andy McDonald requesting that dredging be suspended, Houchen tweeted:
“Let me get this right, crustaceans die in October 2021, but Labour say it’s caused by work we started 8 weeks ago 11 months AFTER the die off happened.
“Party Politics at its very worst. They are salivating at using incomplete reports to stop thousands of jobs & millions in investment.”
Before the dredging
Despite his playground-bully rhetoric, Houchen had a point. The only dredging associated with the old steelworks site is capital dredging to deepen the river at South Bank Quay and this did not take place until 1 September last year, well after the first waves of the die off.
Regular maintenance dredging by PD Ports to keep the river navigable has been carried out for years, without environmental catastrophe. Could anything have caused routine dredging to innocently scrape up toxic sediment?
In late September to early October 2021, the dredger ORCA spent ten days doing routine dredging at the river mouth. A day after it finished the first of the dead crustaceans appeared on the beaches.
But what about land-based excavations?
Minutes of the STDC board meeting dated 16 December 2021 were absent from their website until a few weeks ago, when they were the subject of an FoI request. The minutes detail the rapid progress before the die-off in demolitions with dozens of assignments already completed, each item a significant project. The original five-year demolition schedule was accelerated to three years:
“The operational performance on the Teesworks site is being accelerated… The key driver is the acceleration of the c£100m demolition programme.”
There are reports in the trade press that Houchen wanted ‘boots on the ground’ within one year.
Among the demolitions were the beginnings of blowdowns of larger structures. For every explosive demolition, the need for Environmental Impact Assessments was waived by the planning officers.
Could the breakneck speed and ‘do minimum’ demolition and remediation have caused contaminated sediment to be scraped up during routine dredging?
Last month, after the December 2021 minutes saw the light of a day and with them the long list of land-based excavations, Defra agreed to look again at their findings in response to a request from local Andy McDonald. But Coffey remains adamant there will be no new inquiry.
South Bank Quay
Demolition has continued apace over the last 18 months, including more blowdowns. Dredging started at South Bank Quay on 1 September last year at the northwestern end of the Teesworks site for better access to the new SeaH site.
Construction began earlier. The STDC board minutes of December 2021 reported that the South Bank Quay Phase1 construction works began on 6 September 2021 “and are well underway, with the focus being on the preparatory major earthworks phase of the project”.
The area around the quay is mostly reclaimed land comprising ‘made ground’ harvested from toxic slag. The old nickname for the neighbouring South Bank township was Slaggy Island: the children would use the slag heaps as their playground.
Prior to planning approval, sediment tests were taken by consultants Royal Haskoning at a number of boreholes drilled into the riverbed next to the Quay. Haskoning published the results in their Environmental Information Report for Tees Valley Combined Authority (TVCA). They showed levels at Borehole 34 above Defra agency Cefas’ dangerous Action Level 2 for mercury, cadmium, zinc, chromium, copper, lead, nickel, arsenic, and PCBs (carcinogenic, man-made polychlorinated biphenyl, banned since the 1980s).
That material is too poisonous to be dumped at sea. An exclusion zone was defined around Borehole 34 and the contaminated sludge, now dredged, is currently drying out in mounds near the river before being transferred to landfill.
Sediment with contaminants testing at between Cefas Action Levels 1 and 2 can be deposited offshore. The toxins at this level were: hydrocarbons, organotins, and PAHs (especially naphthalene, fluoranthane, fluorene, pyrene and phenanthrene).
The original permit from the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) allowed for the removal of 1.8 million cubic metres (over 1.5 million wet tonnes) of clay and sand to be removed from South Bank Quay and taken to North Sea site Tees Bay C.
The dredging volume allowed expanded by a further 416,000 cubic metres in a permit variation registered on 14 November last year.
The response by Cefas to the permit variation application makes for interesting reading. Cefas point out that the material to be removed includes ‘made ground’.
According to Cefas, fine sediment particles show “a high affinity to combine with soluble metals and organic contaminants and materials having the potential to impact fish health and physiology”.
The document warns that fine sediment from clay suspended in the water can cling to fish gills, inhibiting respiration and encouraging disease and parasites.
There was also a “potential to deplete levels of dissolved oxygen” in the water.
The permit allowed for the removal of material from the riverside – bordering the contaminated material exclusion zone. Its removal, warned Cefas: “has the potential to cause the resuspension of contaminated sediments”.
The MMO permit also allows for underwater demolition including the old South Bank Wharf, three jetties and piles.
Cefas warned of a possible cumulative environmental impact while dredging is also being carried out by the Anglo American Harbour Facilities project and the Northern Gateway container terminal.
The observations recalled that fisheries advisors had repeatedly raised concerns about the impact on fish from increased suspended sediment during previous consultations.
Although the permit specified that a lid was to be used in scooping up the sediment, in the event it didn’t fit properly. Drone filming by Grecko Indie Media shows plumes of sludge billowing from the overfull dredgers.
There’s a difference now to the start of the die-off in 2021. Redcar and Saltburn townsfolk, cynical of the official line, are taking matters into their own hands. They are bringing their buckets and spades to the beach to collect the dead creatures and “sea coal” samples, following the strict specifications of the crowdfunded test labs. There are local residents with freezers stuffed with starfish.
The scientists’ next step
We might wonder why pyridine did not show up in the testing for the many environmental impact statements. The simple answer is it wasn’t tested for.
York University have now developed an accredited test for pyridine. And this month sees the start of the most ambitious toxin-mapping of the Tees yet. Led by Dr Gary Caldwell, York University is taking sediment cores throughout the Tees estuary and out into the three and six mile deposits.
Their chemical analysis will include pyridine, PAHs, other hydrocarbons, PCBs and metals. To find the total environmental risk, the research team will analyse how the witches’ brew of toxins interact with each other.
Dr Caldwell tweeted:
“One of our aims is to show that out of disaster a better system can be built as the UK’s approach to environmental risk assessment is not fit for purpose.”
Are we looking at an ecocide by pollution overkill?
The pyridine found in the die-off crabs in 2021 could be from a source other than Teesworks. Until its closure in September 2021, Vertellus Specialties UK Ltd had a plant at Seal Sands on the Tees northern bank. The company processed imported pyridine, the industrial waste tankered to Northumbrian Water Ltd across the river at Bran Sands. But the plant decommissioning was signed off by inspectors from the Health and Safety Commission.
Could historic disposal of pyridine by the plant’s predecessors have created pools of the chemical locked in the sediment? At the environment select committee hearing on the die off in October last year, witnesses posed the possibility of an underwater pyridine lake.
There could be other reasons for an industry-related disaster, especially when many of the affected creatures live on the seabed. Were other chemicals in the pollution mix involved? We are spoilt for choice.
Or has the sheer volume of dredged sediment deprived sea creatures of oxygen – essentially smothering them?
The answers could come from a full-blown inquiry, but that would delay progress at Teesworks and given the political interests involved it’s unlikely to happen.
See below three short videos showing drone footage by Grecko Indie Media at Saltburn Beach on 30 March 2023.