Questions over Teesside Freeport's role when it comes to washed up fish - Andy Brown

At first glance what is happening just north of Yorkshire in Teesside looks impressive. A new deep water port is being created to service the offshore wind industry and new facilities are being established to build the turbines.

In theory a bustling freeport will usher in a new age of industrial prosperity for a long-neglected part of the north with pesky regulations being swept away so that they don’t delay progress.

There is, of course, much to be admired about the project. Unfortunately rushing to build without worrying too much about the consequences for others can also bring big problems. In this case those downsides are having a huge impact on the livelihoods of Yorkshire fishing communities and on the health of a huge area of our coastline.

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For months now crabs, lobsters, and shellfish have been found dead on the shore in great numbers. Dead fish, porpoises and starving seals have also been regularly encountered. Something is going very badly wrong offshore.

A general view along the River Tees. PIC: Ian Forsyth/Getty ImagesA general view along the River Tees. PIC: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images
A general view along the River Tees. PIC: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

When this problem first began to emerge, there were efforts to dismiss it as nothing more than a routine problem with a natural algal bloom.

As it happens a large longstanding natural algal bloom is incredibly rare whilst ones caused by excessive use of fertilisers and dumping sewage combined with long periods of exceptionally hot weather can easily be triggered. Something which is happening increasingly frequently but is not remotely natural.

So, it was quite plausible to suggest that there might have been a short algal bloom that would cause a problem for a few days in summer.

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Almost no one seems to have actually spotted anything of the kind, which is a bit of a surprise if it was a cause of such a major problem.

What people have spotted is dead sea creatures stinking on our beaches week after week. Such a long term problem going on deep into winter is clearly not an algal bloom.

It is not necessary to look far for an alternative explanation. Marine scientists from local universities have queued up to point out that careless dredging for the new “freeport” is a much more likely explanation. The mud in the Tees estuary contains a great deal of toxic waste and one of the ingredients in that waste is a substance called pyridine.

This is deadly for both animals and plants in the sea in very small concentrations. In other words, if it is being routinely dug up and released into the north sea then it will destroy the undersea ecology over a massive area. Taking with it much of the local inshore fisheries.

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This is not something that will be quick and easy to recover from. Even if the poison reached acceptable levels today then it could take many years for the ecosystem to recover. Dead creatures don’t reproduce and it takes time for recolonisation of devastated areas.

Creatures like sea birds that depend on catching ocean creatures for large parts of their diets could starve. Even curlews are at risk because they usually feed in estuaries in winter and so we risk losing their calls across our Dales uplands.

For humans long term exposure to pyridine causes liver, heart and kidney damage but at much higher dose levels than the impact on fish. Concerns over that won’t exactly help the local fishing community even if they do succeed in making any significant seafood catches in depleted waters.

Faced with such risks you might reasonably expect that the first reaction of the authorities would be to adopt the precautionary principle and to make sure that all the dredging activities in Teesside were firmly under control by avoiding areas of potential contaminants.

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That isn’t what seems to be happening. Instead of taking urgent action the government’s main focus has been on urgent perception management.

Freeports are an important policy choice for this government. They rely on the theory that the thing which is holding back investment in Britain is too much government intervention. Which is a bit strange for projects which have been driven forward by government intervention.

Good quality sustainable development projects are something we need more of in the north. A careless rush to develop in one place regardless of the consequences to another is not.

We need political leaders across North Yorkshire to speak out against the long term damage to our coastline before it is too late.

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It remains to be seen whether we can persuade this government to take some responsibility for the consequences of its light touch approach to basic controls over how work is conducted in a so-called ‘freeport’.

It also remains to be seen how long it will be before the livelihoods of Yorkshire seafood fishing communities return to prosperity, our coastline returns to health, our wildlife comes back and it is possible to walk our beaches without the stink of dead animals.

Andy Brown is a Craven District Councillor representing Aire Valley with Lothersdale and the Green Party North Yorkshire Councillor for Aire Valley.