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ENVIRONMENT

‘Dead fish everywhere’ in German-Polish river after feared chemical waste dump

Thousands of fish have washed up dead on the Oder river running through Germany and Poland, sparking warnings of an environmental disaster as residents are urged to stay away from the water.

A woman takes pictures of dead fish on the banks of the river Oder in Schwedt, eastern Germany, on August 12th, 2022, after a massive fish kill was discovered in the river close to the border with Poland.
A woman takes pictures of dead fish on the banks of the river Oder in Schwedt, eastern Germany, on August 12th, 2022, after a massive fish kill was discovered in the river close to the border with Poland. Photo by Odd ANDERSEN / AFP
The fish floating by the German banks near the eastern town of Schwedt are believed to have washed upstream from Poland where first reports of mass fish deaths were made by locals and anglers as early as on 28th July.
 
German officials accused Polish authorities of failing to inform them about the deaths, and were taken by surprise when the wave of lifeless fish came floating into view.
 
In Poland, the government has also come under heavy criticism for failing to take swift action.
 
Almost two weeks after the first dead fish appeared floating by Polish villages, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Friday that “everyone had initially thought that it was a local problem”.
 
But he admitted that the “scale of the disaster is very large, sufficiently large to say that the Oder will need years to recover its natural state.”
 
“Probably enormous quantities of chemical waste was dumped into the river in full knowledge of the risk and consequences,” added the Polish leader, as German Environment Minister Steffi Lemke urged a comprehensive probe into what she called a brewing “environmental disaster”.
 
‘Atypical’
 
Standing by the riverbank, Michael Tautenhahn, deputy chief of Germany’s Lower Oder Valley National Park, looked in dismay at the river on the German-Polish border.
 
“We are standing on the German side — we have dead fish everywhere,” he told AFP.
 
 
“I am deeply shocked… I have the feeling that I’m seeing decades of work lying in ruins here. I see our livelihood, the water — that’s our life,” he said, noting that it’s not just fish that have died, but also mussels and likely countless other water creatures. “It’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
 

Dead fish are pictured on the banks of the river Oder in Schwedt, eastern Germany on August 12th, 2022.

Dead fish are pictured on the banks of the river Oder in Schwedt, eastern Germany on August 12th, 2022. Photo by Odd ANDERSEN / AFP
 
The Oder has over the last years been known as a relatively clean river, and 40 domestic species of fish make their home in the waterway.
 
But now, lifeless fish — some as small as a few centimetres, others reaching 30-40 cm — can be seen across the river. Occasionally, those still struggling to pull through can be seen flipping up in the water, seemingly gasping for air.
 
Officials believe that the fish are likely to have been poisoned.
 
“This fish death is atypical,” said Axel Vogel, environment minister for Brandenburg state, estimating that “undoubtedly tonnes” of fish have died.
 
Fish death is often caused by the distortion of oxygen levels when water levels are too low, he explained.
 
“But we have completely different test results, namely that we have had increased oxygen level in the river for several days, and that indicates that a foreign substance has been introduced that has led to this,” he said.
 
Tests are ongoing in Germany to establish the substance that may have led to the deaths.
 
Early reports had suggested indications of extremely high levels of mercury. But another batch of preliminary results released on Friday evening showed unusually high levels of salt.
 
Authorities said they were inconclusive, and that further test results on heavy metals and mercury were pending.

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ENVIRONMENT

German city residents sue government over air pollution

Seven residents in Germany are taking the government to court over the poor air quality around their homes, an organisation representing them said on Monday.

German city residents sue government over air pollution

The residents of Berlin, Duesseldorf, Frankfurt and Munich believe current government legislation is “demonstrably inadequate to protect people’s health”, according to the organisation, Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH).

Levels of particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide in Germany are up to five times higher than the safe levels recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO), according to DUH.

The complainants are calling for immediate action to bring about “a reduction in dangerous air pollutants from, among other things, traffic, wood burning and agriculture”, said Juergen Resch, national director of DUH.

“Politicians are doing too little to protect people like me who live on a busy road,” said complainant Volker Becker-Battaglia, from Munich.

This time last year, a new coalition government was elected in Germany on a promise to make environmental concerns one of its top priorities.

READ ALSO: Germany should ditch Christmas lights this year, says environmental group

The Greens entered power for the first time in more than two decades, promising that Germany would end coal power and generate 80 percent of electricity from renewables by 2030.

But since then, climate concerns have been overshadowed by the war in Ukraine, an acute energy crisis and record inflation.

Germany has accelerated plans to import liquefied natural gas (LNG) by sea and has even decided to reactivate mothballed coal-fired power plants.

In 2021, climate activists won a landmark victory in Germany when the constitutional court ruled that the government’s climate plans were insufficient and placed an unfair burden on future generations.

German environmental groups also last year announced a legal offensive against car giants Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW over their emissions.

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