Massive fish deaths in the Oder river on the German-Polish border linked to mercury

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Large amounts of chemical waste have likely been dumped into a river on the Polish-German border, Poland’s prime minister said on Friday, killing tons of fish and creating an ecological disaster that could take years to clean up.

Authorities said 150 Polish troops had been deployed to the 522-mile-long Oder River, which runs through Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic, to launch a clean-up operation. The chemical spill was likely intentional, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on a podcast on Friday.

“It is likely that huge amounts of chemical waste were dumped into the Oder, and this was done with full awareness of the risks and consequences,” Morawiecki said. “We will not let this matter go, we will not rest until the culprits are severely punished.”

German water samples from the area showed high levels of mercury, according to local media, but authorities are still investigating the source of the spill. Scientists have speculated that there may be other causes for the mass fish kills, including climate change. Polish troops erected a barrier along the river to catch dead fish and warned local residents not to swim in the water or eat fish caught in contaminated parts of the river.

Environmental groups have criticized the Polish government for being slow to respond to the contamination, which local fishermen noticed in late July. Germany’s environment ministry said Warsaw only officially informed Berlin of the disaster on Thursday, weeks after the dead fish appeared.

“We know the chain of reporting envisioned for such cases has not worked,” Environment Department spokesman Christopher Stolzenberg told reporters, according to The Associated Press.

“An environmental disaster is looming,” German Environment Minister Steffi Lemke told the RND news group. “All parties are working hard to find the reasons for this mass [killing of fish] and minimize further potential damage.

Video job on social media shows fish piled up and floating along the shore. Local fishermen say they have been pulling dead fish and beavers out of the water for weeks.

Scientists have speculated that factors other than deliberate dumping may be at play. Mercury may have been deposited in river sediments due to past pollution, before being stirred up by recent dredging . Europe’s historic heat wave this summer could also be to blame. The continent faces what is potentially its worst drought in 500 years; low water levels and high temperatures could choke off the supply of oxygen to aquatic life in the river and worsen existing pollution.

“It’s a problem we will increasingly face as we navigate a world affected by climate change. The pollutants that are there are more toxic because they are present in higher concentrations during drought,” said David Taylor, professor of environmental change at the National University of Singapore.

“We are now in this strange time, where we are starting to see…not only the direct effects of climate change, such as droughts and storms, but also the ripple effects.”

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In 2016, Vietnam blamed a steelworks on its coast for a toxic waste spill that killed some 100 tonnes of fish, in what has been called the country’s worst environmental disaster. The spill contaminated 125 miles of coastline and left many local fishermen jobless. An internal government report found the factory, run by Taiwanese group Formosa Plastics, committed more than 50 violations, according to Reuters.

On Friday, Polish Prime Minister Morawiecki sacked the head of the National Water Management Agency, after 20,000 people signed a petition calling for their dismissal. He also fired the chief inspector of the country’s Environmental Protection Agency for not acting quickly enough.

“The situation we face was by no means predictable, but the responsible agencies could certainly have acted more quickly,” he said in a Facebook post.

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