Environmental disaster: a river of dead fish between Germany and Poland

Thousands of fish float inert in the Oder, raising fears of an ecological “disaster” in this river that runs between Germany and Poland, whose authorities asked the population to stay away from its waters.

Schools of fish belly-up near the town of Schwedt, in eastern Germany, they were probably swept away by the current from Poland, where neighbors and fishermen detected the first cases on July 28.

The German officials, surprised by the mass arrival of these animals, reproached the Polish authorities for not having warned.

German Environment Minister Steffi Lemke demanded a thorough investigation to determine the causes of this “environmental disaster”.

In Poland, the right-wing populist government has been criticized for not acting sooner.

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki assured that he was aware of the incident “on August 9 or 10”, “it is evident that I learned about it very late”.

The day before, he tried to justify himself by saying that “in the beginning, everyone thought it was just a local problem.

“The magnitude of the contamination is very large, enough to say that the Oder will need years to return to its natural state,” he acknowledged, since “enormous amounts of chemical waste were dumped, with full awareness of the risk and consequences,” opined.

“Deeply Shocked”

Standing on the banks of the river, Michel Tautenhahn, deputy head of the Lower Oder Valley National Park, gazes in dismay at the watercourse that marks the German-Polish border.

“We are on the German side. We have dead fish everywhere,” he tells AFP.

“I am deeply shocked. I have the impression of seeing decades of work ruined (…) Water is our life,” he laments.

Not only fish have died, also many other aquatic animals like mussels. The fish are “just the visible part of the iceberg,” she says.

The Oder is a river that has been considered relatively clean for many years and is home to forty species of fish.

Many now float lifeless in its waters, some just a few centimeters, others almost two hands. Sometimes, a specimen is seen that tries to turn around to try to swim.

“Atypical” death

The authorities estimate that the animals they were probably poisoned.

His death is “atypical”, explains Axel Vogel, Minister of the Environment of the German state of Brandenburg, assuring that “tons” of fish have already died.

Fish kills are often caused by distorted oxygen levels when the water level is too low, he explains.

But we have detected an increased level of oxygen for days, which indicates that an external substance has been introduced and has caused all this,” he says.

Analysis is underway in Germany to establish the nature of this substance. The authorities have already reported indications of extremely high levels of mercury, something that the investigation will have to confirm.

In Poland, the police offered a reward of $215,000 to find the culprit of the spills.

The opposition, local authorities and environmental organizations have demanded explanations from the government and some even call for resignations in the Climate Ministry, one of whose deputy ministers still encouraged the population to go bathing in the Oder on Thursday.

“This looks like Chernobyl when, after the catastrophe, the Soviet power sent people to participate in the parade on May 1,” Daniel Petrykiewicz, an environmental activist told the TVN24 television network.

On the German bank of the river, Tautenhahn worries about the future.

“If it is mercury, it will stay there for a long time”he says remembering that this metal does not disintegrate and can remain in the sediments for many years.

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