In recent days, tons of dead fish have washed up ashore the Oder River on the Polish-German border. While the exact cause of the mass death of fish remains unknown, German authorities speak of "incredibly high" levels of mercury found in the water.
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The first dead fish were spotted in late July near the town of Oława in south-western Poland. The polluted water passed Wrocław, passed through the Lubuskie province, and on Friday, August 12, it had already reached Szczecin. Local residents pulled out almost eight tons of dead fish from the river.

"The scale of the phenomenon keeps growing bigger every day. We still have no information as to the source of the water poisoning" - such was the announcement made on Saturday, July 30, by the Oława branch of the Polish Angling Association (Polski Związek Wędkarski).

- This is a real disaster as far as the Oder's fish stock is concerned. We’ve been taking care of it for years, stocking the river, protecting the fish, and limiting fishing opportunities. It’ll take over 10 years to rebuild this- said Adrzej Świętach, head of the Wrocław PAA branch.

Local activists, including the musician Michał Zygmunt, have raised the alarm about the river pollution already at the end of July: "A wave of chemicals is flowing through the Oder (...) Where are any official announcements? Where are the institutions? I demand action. After all, people are still using the river on a daily basis, and there is no information about any possible danger they could be exposed to.

On Wednesday, August 3, the Lower Silesian Inspectorate of Environmental Protection issued a communiqué on the case of dead fish in the Oder River. We learn from it that the first reports reached the inspectors on Thursday, July 28. The communiqué also reads that the water samples taken below the Lipka sluice (near the border with Opolskie province) between August 1-3 showed "with more than 80% probability the presence of cyclic and aromatic hydrocarbon derivatives in all three tested water samples. The presence of mesitylene, a substance with toxic effects on aquatic organisms, was found with more than 80% probability in samples collected near the Lipka sluice and the town of Oława".

Mesitylene is a poisonous organic chemical compound from the group of aromatic hydrocarbons. It is a colorless liquid with a sweet, aromatic odor. In industry, it is used in organic synthesis, as a high-octane component of motor gasoline and as a specialized solvent.

Zatruta Odra. Kostrzyn nad Odrą
Zatruta Odra. Kostrzyn nad Odrą  Fot. Cezary Aszkiełowicz / Agencja

German authorities find high levels of mercury in the river

In the following days, dead fish were spotted in the capital of Lower Silesia, Wrocław, including the city moat, where the city authorities fished them out.

On Wednesday, August 10, similar reports were coming in from Kostrzyn, West Pomerania.

A group named "Zatruta Odra" (Poisoned Oder) has been set up on Facebook. There, one can learn that dead beavers have been spotted floating on the water in the German town of Lubusz. Local German authorities are also investigating the source of the water poisoning.

Niemcy. Informacja o zatrutej Odrze i ostrzeżenie, by nie łowić ryb, nie wpuszczać do wody psów itp.
Niemcy. Informacja o zatrutej Odrze i ostrzeżenie, by nie łowić ryb, nie wpuszczać do wody psów itp.  Fot. Cezary Aszkiełowicz / Agencja

German police took water samples in Frankfurt on the Oder. On Thursday evening, the portal reported that "the results of the analysis of water samples from the Oder River indicate an incredibly high level of mercury".

At the river bank in Kienitz, local authorities have posted laminated cards with warnings not to fish, eat, bathe or allow dogs in the water.

Wyborcza looked for similar warnings on the Polish side, unfortunately to no avail.

An environmental crime

Poland’s main water management agency – the State Water Holding "Polish Waters" (Wody Polskie), continues to post information about the situation in the river on its website.

The most recent announcement reads: "The Wrocław branch of Polish Waters recommends all residents of towns located along the Oder River and tourists staying by the river not to enter the water and not to bathe in it. The appeal applies to both people and dogs under the care of their owners. Until the causes of the currently observed phenomenon are clarified and the source is located, which is the responsibility of other authorities and institutions, it is also not advisable to fish in the Oder and consume the fish".

On Wednesday, the management of the Polish Waters branch in Zielona Góra filed a notice to the local prosecutor's office and the local police on the possibility of an environmental crime.

The same notice was filed by the Wrocław Regional Environmental Protection Inspectorate. - At the moment, we have filed a notice with the prosecutor's office, but not against a specific entity- says Beata Merenda, the spokeswoman for the Wrocław Regional Environmental Protection Inspectorate.

An environmental crime of this scale is punishable by up to five years in prison.

Martwe ryby w Odrze
Martwe ryby w Odrze  Fot. Władysław Czulak / Agencja

The government is playing the blame game

On Wednesday, August 10, the Chief Management of the Environmental Protection Inspectorate held a press conference. - We are conducting our research from the river level and conducting drone flights to assess the situation. The elevated physical and chemical parameters could have various causes. We are investigating every possibility.

Officials assured the public that the situation on the Oder River in the Lubuskie province was not dramatic, few fish had died, and the results of analyzed water samples did not indicate toxic substances. Fishermen, who pulled out several tons of dead fish from the river, were outraged. They began flooding the internet with photos and videos of dead animals (dead beavers and birds have also been spotted). Local politicians accused the central government of being tardy and lying to the public.

On Thursday, another press conference was held in the village of Cigacice near Zielona Gora. This time, among the present officials were the Secretary of State at the Ministry of Environment and Climate Jacek Ozdoba, Undersecretary of State at the Ministry of Infrastructure Grzegorz Witkowski, and President of Polish Waters Przemysław Daca. Mr. Daca said that his agency knew about the dead fish in the Oder River since July 26. Since then, no one has warned residents and local government officials.

The conference was kept in a completely different tone than the last one. The Minister of the Environment admitted that we are facing an environmental disaster of great magnitude.

- We will find those who are responsible for this. A substance that causes fish to die was introduced into the water. We are checking what kind of substance it was- Jacek Ozdoba said. Residents present at the conference were angry because they had hoped to hear specific answers. Especially, given that government institutions knew about the environmental disaster as early as July 26.

- You had two weeks to find the culprit! You had two weeks to warn people! – residents shouted.

Minister Ozdoba admitted that chemical parameters were elevated at first, but then the danger disappeared.

- The whole ecosystem died, the whole river died, and you are only talking about the millions you’ll spend on restocking the river? – environmental expert Marta Jermaczyk-Sitek was angry.

Deputy Minister Witkowski tried to put the blame on local governments. The message on state TV was supposed to be clear - the river is being poisoned by municipalities, which in the west of the country are managed by the oppositional Civic Platform.

The public was told that local governments are also discharging wastewater into the Oder and are co-responsible for the pollution.

- Please, understand that local governments can dump gigantic amounts of sewage into the river. Local governments run by the Civic Platform are dumping sewage. We will punish them and send in the prosecutor's office to investigate- Witkowski thundered.

On Friday, the Defense Ministry announced that the military would help contain the disaster.


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