The Beach Debacle

[Currently still in Draft]

A bit of pre-amble since I expect this post may attract a few new visitors.

An “event” happened Sept / Oct 2021. Something killed-off a large number of crustaceans off the Tees Mouth coast, maybe even more widely. Whatever killed them off it has had a consequential effect on livelihoods of crab and lobster fishers, and probably longer term consequences on the wider marine ecosystem.

How do we know something happened? Many whole, dead & dying crabs and lobsters washed-up on local beaches over a period of days, and the fact so many arrived whole tells us the death and dying must have happened relatively recently and locally. If they had been in the water longer we would expect many more to have been eaten. And the pot fishers reported massive reductions in expected catches since then to this day, 18/20 months later, north of Hartlepool and as far south as Whitby and Scarborough.

There have been several wash-ups on the Redcar, Marske and Saltburn beaches since (about which I’ll say more) and they are increasingly pictured and reported on social media and picked-up by wider media, and we have the spiral reinforcement effect that more people are therefore looking and seeing what’s on the beaches, and reporting, etc … A lot of this becomes “noise” that doesn’t necessarily add to understanding what is actually happening. Further reinforced by the fact, that since the event and story are clearly of “environmental” interest, many of those piling on being more general environmental activists, concerned with sewage-treatment overflows and blue-flag bathing & surfing interests on the same beaches, as well as wider moorland grouse and sheep management, fox-hunting, you name it.

Furthermore since one candidate for the original cause of the event is the placement of Teesworks-Freeport development under Tory management, there is massive partisan political interests on top of the environmental activism.

I’m writing this today in particular because Yorkshire Post picked-up the story yesterday (Wednesday) and posted lots of anecdotal evidence and photos from the previous day (Tuesday) as well as photos and reports back to Sept21. (I’ll make reference to specific statements I take issue with later.) I’m on some part of the beach (nr Marske) every other day, and along longer Marske-Redcar and Marske-Saltburn stretches once or twice every week, and I have a much longer history with these beaches having been raised 5 miles away over 60 years ago. I went down to the beach today, right along to Saltburn again this morning – and some of what I saw, I’ll report later.

People are becoming focussed on “objective evidence” as “facts” which would be laudable, but for the complexity of the situation we are dealing with. Understanding needs a lot more than facts. So I need to say a few things about facts and truths.

Anecdotally …

“I have never seen X”
is much less valuable than
“I’ve seen X sometimes / often before”

… given the same level of unbiased truth in the statements and similar levels of experience / exposure and the distribution of these experiences over time and location – at many different scales. But, as I said above, there are also massive distorting political and environment activism biases in play anyway.

How do we and our journalists get to the truth?
And what should we do with it?

Independent “scientific” objectivity obviously helps, but we are dealing with a massively complex set of circumstances.

Long story short, both independent and government funded retrospective investigations were essentially inconclusive – frankly, as you’d expect given distances in time and geography. Some statistical and expert opinion (how independent?) on likelihood of different scenarios.

One thing seems beyond doubt, Tory management of the port developments, were (a) too quick to award contracts and capital interests to “friends” and (b) too lenient in how “Environmental Impact Assessment” (EIA) controls were enforced on those contractors. (b) follows from (a) and full marks to Teesside Monitor and Private Eye for keeping on top of the Tory corruption and incompetence aspect of the saga.

But none of that helps with the current environmental concerns.

One thing is for sure, a lesson learned hopefully, that EIA should be applied seriously in planning and approval of all capital developments. Had that been done in this case, it would have undoubtedly required environmental monitoring before, during and after the development. As it is, some monitoring and testing should be instituted now anyway. It may tell us nothing about the original event, but it would inform something about the ongoing environmental concerns and consequences.

We need to separate questions about “the event” from ongoing observations on the beaches, they may be connected, they might not be.

The original candidate cause was capital dredging and land reclamation activities releasing toxins from land and river bed.

Ongoing candidates are operational dredging, which has obviously been happening as long as the port has been operational, but may be further distributing toxins disturbed by the capital works.

So, at this point I’m left with 3 questions.

    • What are the other candidate causes for the event?
    • Do we have a significant ongoing problem?
    • If we do have an ongoing problem, what are candidate causes and solutions?

What would I know anyway? As well as having regular, long-term, first-hand experience of the beaches, I’m an engineer whose work included computational fluid dynamics. So even though I’ve never done marine dispersion applications, I do have more than just general knowledge of tidal flows. Furthermore, for over 20 years, I’ve been a researcher into knowledge modelling – how we know what we think we know. So, given that I’m focussing the remainder on  what my own observations (like those anecdotally reported by others in the Yorkshire Post) can tell us about those 3 questions.

Candidate Cause(s) Event and Ongoing?

Sea-coal wash-ups are regular occurrences on these beaches. 2 or 3 times each winter is not unusual, though obviously the amount varies. Back in 2017 (pre-Teesworks etc) there was a particularly large sea-coal wash-up. Knee deep along stretches nearest Saltburn. So much fresh coal you could smell it onshore away from the beach. Post-storm winter-wash-ups typically contain sea shells, sea life, kelp stems, and general human flotsam and jetsam as well as varying amounts of sea-coal.

In terms of the original event, and having read the inconclusive reports since, the Tees capital dredging was an obvious candidate and still would be if there were any testing that could shed any light now.

When Pyridine was first suggested, my first reaction was new sea-coal? Fresh coal has tarry and volatile components that include all manner of Nitrogen and Sulphur aromatics and cyclics as well “carbon”. Although I don’t recall unusually large amounts of sea-coal in the original event wash-up, there have been plenty either side of that event.

There are multiple sources of sea-coal over the centuries, some from port loading and unloading operations and from ship cleaning and dumping operations undoubtedly, but possibly more significantly, from naturally exposed undersea coal seams and from subsidence around under-sea-bed Co Durham coal workings – which of course might create fresh coal exposures.

Given we have ongoing interest in beach wash-ups, fresh exposures to sea-coal remains a candidate.

Whilst I’m also looking at how much sea-coal and general weed and flotsam is bound up in the wash-ups, the main interest in recent social-media reporting – and photo sharing – has been the occasionally whole dead and dying sea creatures, mainly star-fish, but mostly how many long-dead and stripped-clean mussel and razor-clam shells are amongst the deposits.

Significant numbers of mussel and razor clam shells are normal in all wash-ups. How much is an unusually large amount is down to the problem with negative anecdotal reporting above:

“I have never seen X”
is much less valuable than
“I’ve seen X sometimes / often before”
(With the caveats above.)

It’s not unusual they’re there, whether the quantities are unusual is hard to say. Even my own wife says “I’ve never seen so many before.” I’m not so sure, and as I say I’m not so sure that kind of anecdotal opinions can be that valuable.

A previous time there was a social media furore on beach wash-up (23 Sept 2022) – on that occasion there was a lot of sea-coal but also lots of kelp and general human (industrial and marine) flotsam. It was also highly localised stacked-up at the top of a high-high tide with long stretches of clear beach.
[4 images to upload]

This week’s furore was a bit different and I went down to witness the whole beach first-hand today.

Firstly after some 3 or 4 heavy-seas days over the weekend, we had a calm day on Tuesday – when people started posting reports. What’s interesting Tue / Wed / Thu this week is that we are in a spell of shallow tides, with less-high high-tides each day, so you can see three distinct days worth of tidal margin deposits.

There are indeed long sections with many mussel and razor-clam shells over the 3 days, some dead and dying star-fish and kelp stems and, closer to Saltburn, lots of sea-coal. There were also a few dead flat-fish (dabs?) and most interestingly in the densest sea-coal area a large species of clam (120mm x 60mm ?) I’d not seen before and neither had the few people I spoke to on the beach. Even more interesting, not just shells, but several with partial flesh still inside, and a handful of whole living but dying creatures weighing 500g (?)

[To be completed]

The Yorkshire Post piece that caused my (and local Tory MP) reactions (from 28th March ?) – basically “factually” report many opinions, but those opinions not qualified with any questions of truth or credibility, and conflating many different issues across 18 months including questions that had been asked and answered before. The associated Twitter activity almost entirely “ragging” the local Tory mayor and MP, Houchen and Clarke and their reactions, egged on by local Labour politicians and activists. Great political theatre, but not casting much light on actual events and causes.

Later piece (Nathan Hyde, News 4th April) from Yorkshire post. Perfectly fine reporting on the history of inconclusive testing. Still guilty of not making clear distinction between “die-offs” and “wash-ups” – what’s normal and what isn’t. But focussing on questions of credibility, reporting opinions of named DEFRA and Independent scientists. Good.

This Andrew Vine column, (also from YP 4th April, pay-walled), asking the right questions and recognising the important distinction above, and the time lapsed since the possibility of definitive testing.

My instinct is the ongoing activity is mostly natural but that changes in the “naturally occurring” sea-coal may have something to do with perceived changes. (And there are positive stories too – sand-worm population, and mussel lifecycle / young migration?) (The “event” and ongoing public concerns, however well-founded or not, demands the government take environmental monitoring seriously.)



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