The Oder River Poisoning: What Is Killing Hundreds Of Tons Of Fish In Central Europe?
Since last year, over half of the fish in the river have died, and Germany’s environment minister has said that Poland has not done enough to prevent a repeat of the incident. Now the Oder, which runs through the Czech Republic, Poland, and Germany, is experiencing fish death en masse once again. Was this catastrophe doomed to repeat itself? Reporters from German newspaper Die Zeit and Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza looked for answers.
LOWER SILESIA —This week, more than one ton of dead fish have been removed from the Oder river within less than 24 hours, a throwback to last year's catastrophe in which half of all fish in the river died. According to a report from the European Union, this was largely caused by industrial pollution in Poland, which allowed for the mass toxic growth of golden algae, and poisoned the river's fish.
While Polish, Czech, and German authorities continue to assess the situation, some are wondering whether the catastrophe could have been avoided altogether.
Many people have criticized the Polish government for not doing anything about the 2022 poisoning of the Oder river in Western Poland, which wiped out the river's fish and left environmental consequences which are still felt today.
But this is untrue: the Polish government has been working hard — to try to silence the issue and make it disappear.
After the discovery of yellow-golden Prymnesium parvum algae in the Oder last year, you could almost hear a stone fall from the heart of Poland's Climate Minister Anna Moskwa. The river, which runs through Western Poland and marks part of the country's border with Germany, connects waterways in Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic to the Baltic Sea.
Poland’s biggest failure
After weeks of dithering about what had killed 400 tons of the river's fish, the discovery of a single-cell algae capable of producing toxic blooms should have brought to an end to discussions previously avoided by the government, including:
- finding the culprit
- theorizing about the slow reaction of government officials
- the vacation that Climate Minister Moskwa took while fish were dying en masse in the Oder
- a potential conflict of interest regarding Moskwa’s position in the government, given that her husband is the deputy director of the State Water Holding “Wody Polskie” (Polish Waters), and she is the environment minister
- legal and illegal discharges of pollutants and other substances into the river, which may have caused or accelerated the catastrophe
- protections the Polish government has extended to big businesses
- the presence of mercury and mesitylene in Polish waters
- ongoing issues in the country’s water management
The ecological catastrophe in the river was underlined as Poland’s biggest failure by an expert panel of communication managers and spokespersons of the largest Polish companies and institutions. But Moskwa remembers this period differently: "It took us a while to determine the cause of the disaster, and after several days of research, we determined that it was the result of golden algae," she said this spring.
Responding to calls from critics, Moskwa argues that the salinification of the Oder was not the key factor allowing the fatal algal bloom to occur. To support her statement, she cites the example of the Czernica water reservoir, located close to the city of Wrocław. This year, the reservoir also experienced fish deaths as a result of golden algae blooms, though in much smaller numbers than those seen in the Oder last summer. Moskwa said that, because the salinity levels of the reservoir were not especially elevated at the time of the blooms, increased salinity in the Oder could not have prompted the blooms to grow. She also quoted figures showing that high temperatures were also not to blame for the disaster, given that the temperatures reported this year were much lower than last year’s.
What was meant to die, already did
It’s a clear June day. The surface of the water in the Czernica reservoir is still. There are no traces of fish. Sitting on the shore, the only signs of life I was able to detect were a passing heron, a lazy swan, four species of dragonflies and two unlucky fishers.
“What is there left to die?” one of the fishers asks. "The fish already died a year ago," he says. “We collected them and transported them out of the area all day long. They were lying belly-up; you almost walked all over them. You could smell the stench all the way from the road."
The fishers come to the reservoir only out of habit. They’ll fix something in their boats, talk to one another, have a beer and maybe feed a nearby swan. They don’t fish, because there isn’t anything to fish. They don’t believe that fish and birds will ever return to the area.
“The Odra is as salty as the Baltic Sea, and all of Poland knows that mines are at fault here,” one says, referring to the mines in lower Silesia, which produce much of the country’s supply of raw materials, such as copper. With that kind of money from mining on the one hand, and fish on the other, you sacrifice the fish.
“Have you seen anyone trying to do anything about the salinification?” one asks. I hadn’t.
In the beginning of June, at a joint conference with Steffi Lemke, the German Minister of the Environment, Moskwa was enthusiastic. "If the suspension of salt discharges into the Oder River had allowed us to avoid a catastrophe, we would have had a very easy task," she said at the time. She expressed the same sentiments on the radio: “If the salinity alone caused the algal blooms, then in every salty sea we would have only algae, no life, and no fish.”
I asked Robert Czerniawski, a hydrobiology professor at the University of Szczecin, Poland, if the salt in the Oder really does not lead to the formation of such blooms: “How many times can you explain, in a simple translation, that a salt-loving species of algae prefers salt water?” he responded.
Salt in the canal and in the copper basin
Professor Czerniawski is one of several dozen scientists fighting against the fake news surrounding the environmental crisis. For almost a year now, his Facebook profile has been a constant center of debate between himself, politicians, other public officials and journalists.
We have to remember that golden algae is a plant; it doesn’t appear out of spite, but reacts to the environment.
“You cannot say that nobody did anything this entire year, but we have not done anything about the overarching threat looming over this catastrophe, which for the Oder, is salinification. And it’s salinification that is the main factor contributing to the development of golden algae blooms in this river," he explains. “If this was not the case, then we would also be able to see algae in the Warta River, which flows right next to the Oder, and has similar climatic and hydrological conditions and is situated in a similar terrain," he says, noting that the Warta has the potential to host even more algae if exposed to similar levels of salinity, given its higher nutrient content.
The “constant, stable, and strong” salinification of the Oder is what prompted the ecological catastrophe to affect this river in particular, rather than its neighbor, he says.
“At its highest levels, the Oder’s salinity is comparable to the Baltic Sea," he adds. This occurs where the river meets with the Gliwice canal, which passes through mining-heavy Silesia, where golden algae can first be detected in the Oder, he explains. According to Czerniawski, the algae in the river then receive “a second dose of salt" from water discharges of the multinational mining cooperation KGHM Polska. “Between the canal and the mining site, the water is less salty, meaning that the algae blooms are smaller, and fewer fish deaths have been observed," he says.
The biologist emphasizes that policymakers and environmentalists must address the underlying issues that caused it the algae to bloom: “We have to remember that golden algae is a plant; it doesn’t appear out of spite, but reacts to the environment," he says. “Salinification is the key factor in the growth that we have seen."
Oder in Germany
The Oder is still in critical condition
In theory, the Ministry of Infrastructure was supposed to deal with restoring the Oder after last year’s catastrophe. Marek Gróbarczyk, the government plenipotentiary for water management, announced in Aug. 2022 that a repair effort would be ready in two months. After 10 months, the main assumption that his team came to is that the algae bloomed not due to increased salinity levels in the water, but because the water levels in the river were too low, meaning that the Oder failed to dilute the toxins. To remedy the situation, Gróbarczyk proposed a series of hydrotechnical investments, including weirs, reservoirs and barrages for the entire basin. His solutions focused on renovations, reconstructions and investments. This prompted activists to respond that this planned solution was treating the Oder with concrete, rather than addressing the issues of pollution, most notably coming from the Polish mining sector.
Critically ill patients always undergo a lot of tests.
“I have the impression that for some reason we like schematic solutions, for which we first have to spend millions to build them, then maintain them and then renovate them in a few years," says Czarniewski. For him, simpler solutions, focused less on expensive infrastructure, and more about concrete interactions with the environment, would be more effective. “We do not think about solutions in which we would give nature more space, which would be enough for both the river and people, like the Germans and the Dutch did," he adds.
“It is also important to note that the amount of water in the river is determined by its flow, rather than its depth," he says. A dammed reservoir would only increase the depth of the river, not doing anything to impact the flow, he argues. Therefore, even if Gróbarczyk’s stipulations on the amount of water being at fault for the catastrophe were true, it would not lead to a greater dilution of toxins within the Oder. “I am not an enemy of improving the navigability of the Oder River or using it economically, but in order to do that, it must be a healthy river and, above all, a river, not a waterway," he says. Instead, he says, with its current levels of salinity and industrial sewage, the Oder has become “the most degraded river in Europe”.
But Minister Moskwa disagrees. Rather than the “most degraded” river, she refers to the Oder as the “most researched” river in Europe. Professor Czarniewski responds: “Critically ill patients always undergo a lot of tests”.
A “leaky” new policy
The Interior Ministry’s solution to the disaster, known as the Gróbarczyk Special Act, recommends the use of a retention and dosing system. The policy proposes that industrial plants will be equipped with reservoirs, which will suspend or limit the discharges of chemicals and pollutants into the water, especially in the event of a drought. But how this is meant to work in practice is hard to say.
Discharge regulations can be easily circumvented, especially since there is no exact definition of drought provided by the Act. In addition, the reservoir tanks proposed in the policy can only hold five days’ worth of brine. Last year, the low flow period of the river, which the administration is trying to fight against, lasted around 80 days.
According to the new policy, plants discharging brine and chemicals into the water will be required to pay twice as much for using the river. But this is not expected to make much of a difference. This is because companies causing much of the pollution are the largest industrial plants in Silesia and Lower Silesia, and the increased fee is to come into force in seven years. It is hard to imagine that it would induce these companies to be more environmentally conscious.
Mining giant KGHM has already announced its plans to build a desalination station. Though Czerniawski agrees with this measure, he also believes that this action was taken far too late. "This should have taken place some 30 years ago," he says. "What we are feeling now is the result of water use permits that were issued decades ago. We will only see the effects of those that have been issued today in another dozen years or so," he says.
Copper giant KGHM was the only company consulted on Gróbarczyk's special act. KGHM represents over 30% of the state treasury, and is a pearl in the crown of Poland's governing Law and Justice party when it comes to the sphere of political influence in business.
Environment Ministers test the salinity in the river Oder near Brandenburg, Germany, after experts concluded toxic algae was the cause of a mass death of the river's fish, June 5, 2023.
Clean-up for show
When the draft of the special act was submitted to the Sejm, Poland's lower house of Parliament, Minister Anna Moskva had already made a show of cleaning the blooms of golden algae from the Glivice Canal.
At the end of May, the army, fire brigade and government officials took part in the clean-up efforts. Looking at the photos from this event, it is hard to believe that the neutralization consisted of pouring hydrogen peroxide along the affected areas. The neutralization of the golden algae was celebrated with an outpouring of positive PR.
The salinity levels in the Canal are currently higher than those found in the Baltic Sea.
Not even a full week after neutralization efforts took place, dead fish began to float again in the Glivice Canal. The authorities tried to reassure the public that golden algae had not made its way back to the river. But experts, including Bogdan Wząitek, who serves on the Parliamentary Team for the Restoration of the Oder River, have challenged the official message. Following the government’s reassurance, Wząitek took to social media, posting images of hundreds of dead fish on Facebook. The pictures were reminiscent of the hundreds of kilograms of fish that were pulled out of the river last year.
“I don’t know where the certainty that there was no more golden algae in the Glivice Canal came from," he says. "There was not even a monitoring or measuring point at the place where the fish were killed." He notes that the salinity levels in the Canal are currently higher than those found in the Baltic Sea. Although Wząitek admits that algae blooms were observed in lakes with lower salinity levels, where they also released toxins, he concluded that the blooms are most developed in the Glivice Canal, which has high salinity. “According to my observations, there are two out of five sections of the canal that have no live fish whatsoever," he says.
Inspection here, ribbon cutting there
But, in spite of ongoing concerns about salinity levels from experts, the government's attention is no longer focused on salt from the mines, but instead on municipal sewage, which also ends up in the Oder River. This is a problem that has been neglected for years, and Poland has faced pressure from The European Commission, which has had reservations regarding Poland’s wastewater management.
The government has also chosen to address wastewater rather than salinity, because local governments are responsible for wastewater treatment plants and sewage networks. They can be thoroughly inspected and punished, or vice versa: subsidized and used to host ceremonial ribbon-cuttings. Some declared investments are already in progress.
This past March, Anna Moskwa clarified her stance on the matter with the Polish Press Agency. Of utmost concern, she said, is “Storm discharges made by water processing utilities along the Oder River, which leak various nitrogen and phosphorus compounds into the water... These are an additional factor conducive to the development of golden algae," she said.
“Large and often uncontrolled discharges occur when heavy rain falls, and when the water company does not have the proper infrastructure to contain such water, which it most often does not," she said. “In these cases, water flows directly into the river, along with its impurities." In spite of the administration’s PR efforts, Moskwa admitted, “These are not isolated cases." Instead, she said, “Waterworks still have a lot of work to do, as many of them still have insufficient wastewater treatment."
In turn, Marek Gróbarczyk recently emphasized that mining accounts for 11% of the total amount of sewage into the Oder River, and that the majority of discharges to this river are sewage from municipal treatment plants.
But even if the government believes that nitrogen and phosphorus are a bigger problem for the Oder River than salt coming from the mines, it is hard to expect spectacular successes here either.
“The construction of the sewage system is important, but it is mainly the discharge of water from mines that affects the salinity of the Oder River, leading to the bloom of golden algae," says Agnieszka Szlauer-Łukaszewska, a hydrobiologist and professor at the University of Szczecin, Poland. “We are also unable to stop the flow of nutrients to the Oder, because they come not only from the sewage system, but also from agriculture," says Szlauer-Łukaszewska, whose research includes a specific focus on the Odra itself.
Experts once again remain unconvinced.
According to Szlauer-Łukaszewska, the impacts of climate change in Poland have exacerbated the problems that the Oder is facing. “We have periods of drought that alternate with storms and heavy short-term rainfall, so the dried soil in the fields does not absorb storm precipitation, which causes rapid surface runoff," she says. That water, mixed with fertilizers and organic matter, eventually runs off into the rivers, creating nutrient-dense waters that can promote the growth of toxic algae blooms. The remains of fish at the bottom of the river since last year’s catastrophe have also enriched sediments with nutrients.
The environment along the river bank itself is also a factor in the amount of nutrients and pollutants present in the river, both of which contribute to the blooms. “Along most of its length, the Oder is devoid of a natural coastal zone where riparian vegetation could develop and capture nutrients from water, both from surface runoff and the river itself," Szlauer-Łukaszewska says. Even effective solutions implemented today will take years to truly achieve results, she says: "Many years will pass before the river brings sand and silt to the newly-constructed structures, and before they become overgrown with vegetation."
At the very least, we have monitoring
Midway through June, Anna Moskwa, the minister, tried to explain the catastrophe to a German audience in an op-ed in Berliner Zeitung. She wrote about what the government has done about the Oder River, and how it intends to combat the golden algae, describing research, procedures and the government’s priorities. She even listed how many firefighters and soldiers took part in the neutralization of algae in the Glivice Canal, and boasts of what it did not have a year ago: monitoring. In her article, she mentioned the days on which samples are taken, and took note of the number of automatic monitoring stations in Poland.
But in spite of Moskwa’s optimistic approach, experts once again remain unconvinced. “Talking about monitoring in the upper section of the river is something like a doctor boasting that he bought himself a stethoscope. It's nice that he has it, but it won't save the patient's health," responds Szlauer-Łukaszewska.
Perhaps most surprisingly, when writing to the Germans, not once Moskwa did not mention the word “salt” — continuing to defy expert opinion on the matter.
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