River Lea oil spill: Campaign groups call on Defra to investigate ‘inadequate’ cleanup op

PUBLISHED: 13:59 19 March 2018

Volunteers collecting oil and rubbish by the River Lea in Hackney. Picture: Sophie Scott

Volunteers collecting oil and rubbish by the River Lea in Hackney. Picture: Sophie Scott


Community groups who dealt with the fallout of what’s been dubbed the “River Lea Disaster” have called on the government to investigate the “inadequate response” of the two organisations in charge.

Oil on a piece of paper that has been dipped in the River Lea at Homerton Bridge. Picture: Rose KeyesOil on a piece of paper that has been dipped in the River Lea at Homerton Bridge. Picture: Rose Keyes

The Environment Agency (EA) and the Canal and River Trust (CRT) stand accused of having responded too slowly to the “worst oil spill” in the recent history of the river, which supplies drinking water to London.

Engine oil entered the river at Pymmes Brook near Tottenham on February 11, but it was not contained and contamination spread both up and downstream over five miles of waterway.

According to the EA, an estimated 78,000 litres of oil-polluted water has been removed for processing.

But five weeks on, the pollution has still not been fully contained or cleaned.

Volunteers' angry signs by the River Lea. Picture: Sophie ScottVolunteers' angry signs by the River Lea. Picture: Sophie Scott

Now representatives from the Lea Boaters Collective, Thames 21, the Green Party, London Waterkeeper, Save Lea Marshes, the National Bargee Travellers Association, the Swan Sanctuary and Moo Canoes have called on the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to investigate what went wrong in the incident, which has been classed as a category 1 or 2 by the EA.

“The CRT has acknowledged they ‘deal with on average six pollution events each year relating to the discharges from Pymmes Brook’,” the groups wrote in an open letter.

“Why then were authorities so unprepared to cope with this major incident?

“Volunteers have noted the EA’s proactive work at the source of the spill, as well as the initial dedication of a handful of CRT staff on the ground.

Oil on the River Lea at Homerton Bridge. Picture: Rose KeyesOil on the River Lea at Homerton Bridge. Picture: Rose Keyes

“It is, however, over one month since the incident and volunteers are still organising regular clean-up operations with no support from the EA or the CRT.

“A boater and CRT 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 EA for over three weeks.”

They say there is no clarity between the EA and CRT’s responsibilities, and have asked whether they are adequately funded.

The CRT is supposed to act as a “guardian for the canals and rivers” of England and Wales, while the EA is supposed to “protect and improve the quality of water, making sure there is enough for people, businesses, agriculture and the environment.”

An EA spokesman told the Gazette numbers of staff on the ground “weren’t an issue”.

“It’s not about how many people we have there,” he said. “They are experts in their field and putting it bluntly know what they are doing.

“We aren’t draining a bath here. It’s a significant pollution incident with a lot of dangerous materials and pollutants.

“You need specialist people and specialist processes to do that, and some of these things do take time. I could say: ‘Let’s send another 20 tankers down there,’ but then they would get on top of each other.”

He likened cleaning to pollution to “sweeping a hard floor”.

“You can put all the muck in the middle of the floor and sweep it up with a dustpan and brush. That’s what we have done in the Lea.

“We have corralled all the oil to the centre of the river and used our specialist equipment to remove it.

“The way in which it has been done is tried and tested, and we are coming to the end of the process.

“We hope in the next few days we can say we have completed the clean-up.”

He continued: “We have two priorities. One to clean the river, and we are almost there. The other priority is to find out who committed the crime, and focus on original sinners who polluted the river has been lost in the coverage.

“We like to think we are the good guys cleaning it up and trying to bring to justice those who pollute.”

Richard Parry, CRT chief exec, added: “It’s incredibly frustrating that it’s taken so long to find the source, and we join with those calling for action to prevent pollution like this from entering via Pymmes Brook in future.

“As we have no authority over Pymmes Brook it’s vital that the organisations who have the power to take action now do so, and we are seeking a meeting with key partners to make this happen.”

If you value what this story gives you, please consider supporting the East London Advertiser. Click the link in the orange box above for details.

Related articles

Become a supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Latest from the East London Advertiser