Month-long pollution incident leaves questions to answer

April 2018 - A major pollution incident on London's River Lee has left boaters, walkers, canoeists, a bird sanctuary and many other groups demanding explanations from Canal & River Trust and the Environment Agency, as Alec Wood reports.

A petition to MPs demands to know why an environmental disaster was not acted upon immediately and calls on both bodies to share publicly their response to the illegal dumping of illegal liquid contaminants, along with what improvements are planned in what many see as a defective system.

The 5,000+ signature petition also demands an inter-agency investigation and root cause analysis of the February 2018 River Lea Oil Disaster and clean-up response, and calls on DEFRA, EAC and the EFRA select committee to hold the Environment Agency and the Canal & River Trust to account for their handling of this disaster and to consider whether the agencies are adequately funded to meet their public objectives.

It took weeks for the clean up operation to become even partially effective, despite lots of boaters and other river users joining in the efforts to clean up the waste oil from the river.

Many boaters were trapped in the oil slick as it spread and are now concerned about the impact of the spillage on their blacking and paintwork.

Canal & River Trust has attempted to place emphasis on the collaborative working between boater volunteers and the clean-up teams from the Trust and Environment Agency.

After some days Sam Thomas, Canal & River Trust customer operations manager, began issuing daily bulletins; but for many this was too little and too late.

The petition organisers say: “A boater and Canal & River Trust joint volunteer clean-up effort was undermined when hazardous waste held in unsealed tonne bags, including dead animals, was left on public towpaths uncollected by the Environment Agency for over three weeks.

“Volunteers have noted the Environment Agency’s proactive work at the source of the spill, as well as the initial dedication of a handful of Canal & River Trust staff on the ground. It is, however, over one month since the incident and volunteers are still organising regular clean-up operations with no support from the Environment Agency or the Canal & River Trust.

“After one month, the oil spill has still not been contained or cleaned.

Throughout this environmental disaster communication between agencies and the affected communities has been substandard, and has fallen short of the most basic expectations:

- No clarity between Environment Agency and Canal & River Trust’s responsibilities
- No evidence of an emergency response contingency plan or strategy
- Insufficient briefing of Canal & River Trust staff and volunteers
- No proactive or clear communication with boat licence holders, rowing clubs or marinas
- No education of towpath users or local businesses
- Lack of clean-up resources available to boaters and volunteers.
- Failure to close waterways quickly and the premature reopening of Hertford Union Canal leading to spread of the contamination.​

London is not the only place where the abilities of the Environment Agency and C&RT are being called into question...

Quarry waste raises pollution fears in the Midlands

In recent days The Floater has been contacted by Neil Ritchie, of the Anchor Inn, by bridge 29 on the Coventry canal.

He says he contacted C&RT before Christmas because the canal at the pub was being contaminated with water being used to wash quarried stone in a newly opened quarry.

Neil explains: “The water laden with silt is being piped directly into the canal. The result is altered PH levels affecting wildlife, and ultimately the silting up of the canal itself.

“I reported this to C&RT last year but they appear to have done nothing to date. More recently I reported it to the environment agency. They have phoned me back and are interested and said they would be in contact with C&RT.

Despite his concerns Neil says that, to date, there has been no action by anyone. “Surely this is a form of corporate fly-tipping/vandalism/” he asks “It's unacceptable in 2018 that the environment should be trashed like this”.

Canal & River Trust's regional spin doctor told The Floater: “I’m told that yes we are aware and we share the concerns. We’ve been working for a while to resolve the matter and have met with the Quarry operator and the EA and are dealing with the issues concerned.”

Photos: (1st) The oil pollution originated inland from Pymms Brook and stretched all the way downriver to Old Ford and beyond, (2nd) Hundreds of swans, coots and other waterfowl were eventually rescued and painstakingly cleaned, many others simply perished in the horribly toxic waterway.

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