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North East sealife deaths: national demo called as deeper dredging begins

Posted on September 5, 2022

As deeper dredging starts on the Tees, the organisers of the human chain action on North East beaches on 28 August have announced a new, national demonstration. On Sunday 2 October they are calling for protesters to join hands around the entire British Isles coastline and along its rivers to protest at pollution in our waterways and beaches.

The campaign hub is the Facebook Group Reclaim our Sea.


The August demonstration was against government inaction over recent sealife deaths in the North East. Last October piles of dead and dying crabs, lobsters and other sea creatures washed up along the North East shore from Seaham to Whitby. Local fishermen found their catch had dwindled away. The die-off echoed in new marine corpses which appeared in February and May this year.

Defra’s claim that the culprit was an algae bloom was met with scepticism.  An independent report commissioned by the Whitby Fishermen’s Association pointed to Defra’s own finding that levels in the dead crabs of the industrial chemical pyridine were up to 74 times that of controls in Cornwall.

Next month’s demonstration 

The human chain next month will raise the issue not only of the North East die-off but the discharge of untreated sewage and other waste that has polluted rivers and beaches around the country.

What is happening now?

With perfect timing, South Tees Development Corporation announced that deeper dredging would begin on Thursday 1 September at South Bank Quay. The project, under the new Teesside Freeport banner, will expand and deepen the Quay to allow access for wind turbine production.

The civil engineering firm Graham began the first ever dredging by STDC. Routine dredging is carried out by PD Ports as the statutory harbour authority.

Some 125,000 cubic metres of dredged sediment will be taken from the Tees and dumped on land. The location of the dumping-ground has yet to be disclosed.

The transfer to land rather than sea is not  a U-turn in light of the die-offs. It is a requirement imposed as a condition of the Marine Management Organisation licence due to the toxicity of the sediment. The dredgers say the works are expected to take eight weeks. Earlier this year there were reports that the channel would be deepened and dredged to a depth of between 11m and 15m. The new works are employing the enclosed bucket method, regarded as a way to minimise the release of contaminated sediment.

The Haskoning Report

The sediment tests that have been done are laid out in the South Bank Quay Supplementary Environmental Information Report of May 2021 for Tees Valley Combined Authority by Royal Haskoning DHV.

The pollutants register a presence across the range of toxins that were tested for, from arsenic to zinc. The ingredients flagged up in this witches’ brew include metals, Polyaromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs), (particularly naphthalene, fluoranthene, fluorene, pyrene and phenanthrene);  Polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs); and Organotins.

Don’t drink the water. The cocktail of contaminants is toxic to humans, animals and plants.

Many of the pollutant tests registered above Cefas Action Level 1.

Cefas (Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science) is an agency of Defra (government Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs). It decides on environmental regulations.

According to Cefas:

“Dredged material with contaminant levels between Action Levels 1 and 2 require further consideration and testing before a decision can be made.”

Action Level 2 forbids dumping at sea.

The tested contaminants showed higher readings from borehole BH34 where tests were taken at depth, at the proposed “berth pocket” where the deepest dredging will take place.

According to the Haskoning report some metal concentrations in BH34 were above Action Level 2.

“Mercury, cadmium and zinc were particularly elevated above Action Level 2 with chromium, copper and lead also present above Action Level 2.”

Across the dredge footprint, the maximum reading for mercury was 60.4 mg per kg; cadmium 14.9; and zinc 2,835. For chromium and copper the maximum result for both was 429 mg per kg and for lead the reading was 828.

The report continued:

“The concentrations of contaminants in BH34 indicates that material removed from this location would likely be deemed unsuitable for disposal at sea. Cefas confirmed this was the case following an interim review of the sediment quality data in April 2021.”

As the plan was to use grabs to remove sediment at the BH34 site, the report excluded that borehole’s test data from its water quality calculations.

However, the risks were not addressed of the grab process leaking plumes of contaminants or exposing an older toxic level of the riverbed to the tidal river waters above.

A range of PAHs had high concentrations throughout the site. Among the PAHs was pyrene, a waste product from the coal tar production process.

Pyridine – which was not tested for –  is also a product of coal tar processing as well as coke production and smelting. It is found in those industries’ slag heaps. The South Bank area’s old nickname was Slaggy Island, due to the many slag heaps that had been tipped there.

The deep dredge is not the first disturbance at South Bank Quay. At the beginning of September the work began to drive 300 6-feet wide, 30 metre-long tubular piles into the river’s bank to support the hardstanding. At the same time downstream at Seal Sands, Vertellus Specialties (UK) Ltd closed its doors, decommissioning its site that included a pyridine processing plant.

In late September to early October,  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.

The human chain protest

Sally Bunce, environmentalist and co-organiser of the human chain said:

“Myself and fellow campaigners are devastated at the commencement of dredging at the South bank quay. This location has contamination levels of arsenic and other toxins which preclude it from sea disposal. Defra themselves stated last week in a legal document that they are still investigating the die off yet South Tees Development Corporation and [metropolitan] mayor Ben Houchen have chosen to proceed and put our sea and public health at risk.”

She described the national demonstration:

“On 2 October we will take our [human chain] Wave around the UK and intend to create a tsunami of support and solidarity for the ailing seas and rivers. Locally we continue to fight to stop this destructive dredging before irreversible damage is done.”

Of the national action, co-organiser and seal rescuer Alison Pake said:

“It would be awesome if we could get the people of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales to come together and join hands to raise awareness. Our sea and our waterways have been badly impacted not only in the Tees but around the coastline and in the rivers. It’s the damage that sewerage and the toxins that are dredged up are doing.”

Next year one million cubic metres of sediment will be dredged from the South Bank Quay and dumped at sea.

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