The Wash to reopen for fishing at 5pm as chemical firm blames vandals for toxic spill in River Nene

BOSSES at a chemical firm have blamed vandals for a toxic spill which killed thousands of coarse fish in the River Nene and kept The Wash closed for fishing for almost two days.

The raiders targeted Safapac, based near Peterborough, over the weekend and released 5,000 litres of hazardous chemicals into storm water drains which poured into the river.

Some 4,000 fish were killed following the leak and tens of thousands of other fish were left struggling to survive.

This latest news comes as the Food Standards Agency announced it would allow fishing around The Wash, into which the Nene flows, to resume at 5pm today.

Martin Steele, managing director of Safepac, said there had been a break in at his premises in Orton Southgate by vandals sometime during June 16 and June 17.

“They broke into a secure chemical storage compound and opened the bottom valves on five 1,000 litre storage containers of environmentally hazardous chemicals, one of which was an insecticide,” he said.

“These chemicals escaped into storm water drains and it has now been established by the Environment Agency that it has flowed into the river system with damaging consequences to a large number of fish.”

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Mr Steele said Safapac staff discovered the “potential problem” on Monday morning and immediately closed an emergency sluice to prevent further damage.

He added the company was working closely with police, the Environment Agency and Anglian Water to “mitigate the consequences of the release”.

He continued: “Safapac has been manufacturing and packing hazardous chemicals for more than 15 years and has never had an environmental incident. We sincerely regret the damage to the environment this irresponsible action has caused.

“Though it is always difficult to prevent the action of mindless vandals, needless to say, we will be looking for any ways in which we can prevent such an incident in the future.”

The Food Standards Agency has said the ban on the gathering of fish and shellfish from the River Nene and The Wash was put in place as a “precautionary measure”.

A spokesperson for the Food Standards Agency this afternoon said: “We have now completed our risk assessment and are pleased to report that based on the information available to us we have no concerns over shellfish harvested from the Wash being used for human consumption. Local authorities have been advised accordingly.”

Meanwhile the Environment Agency said today water samples taken from the River Nene in Peterborough have confirmed the immediate danger to fish in the river from the chemical spill has passed.

Lab results show “extremely low levels” of the chemicals left in the river system and the Environment Agency expects the River Nene to return to normal “over the next few days”.

It is still urging people, however, to remain vigilant for fish struggling as there is a low risk of small amounts of chemical being washed through from surface water drains with rain today and predicted for tomorrow.

“There may still be small pockets of the chemical that have remained undetected but we would expect the rain to dilute any to such a level that it shouldn’t present a problem,” said Norman Robinson from the Environment Agency.

Throughout the week the Environment Agency has been managing water flows between Orton Mere and the Dog in a Doublet Sluice to help dilute the chemical pollution which lowered the risk to wildlife.

Officers from the Environment Agency will continue to monitor the situation over the next few days before the complete all clear can be given to water users in the River Nene between Orton Mere and Wisbech.

“We are grateful for the support of anglers by not fishing along the affected stretch of the Nene to give remaining fish a chance to recover from the stress of the pollution and would appreciate their continued support for the next couple of days,” Mr Robinson continued.

At least 4,000 fish are known to have died in the pollution but the agency is now working out the final toll of the impact of the pollution and how it can help the river to recover.

“We have been unable to save some fish and our biological surveys have shown there is likely to be a long-term impact on the flora and fauna of the river. The exact effect is not yet known,” Mr Robinson added.

Police and Environment Agency officers are still investigating the cause of the chemical spill.

Fishermen in King’s Lynn, the largest port affected by the stoppage, said it came a few days after the start of the cockle season. Around 50 tonnes of shellfish landed yesterday are believed to have been impounded.

West Norfolk council’s environmental health officers are carrying out tests on shellfish as a precaution.

Although the levels of chemical detected in the water are no risk to human health, people are still advised to take precautions and to follow NHS advice if they find contact with the water causes irritation.

Anyone concerned about being in contact with the water and who has skin irritation should wash skin and hair with soap and water in the first instance. If irritation persists they are advised to seek medical advice.

If anyone has irritation in their eyes after being in contact with the water they should flush immediately with plenty of drinking water for 15 minutes and seek medical attention if irritation persists.

If you see pollution, or want an update on an incident, call the Environment Agency’s Helpline on 0800 807060.