Poland investigates catastrophic fish die-off

Poland has deployed soldiers to help clean up the Oder River, which runs along the border with Germany, after 10 tonnes of dead fish surfaced in what one official described as an “ecological catastrophe”.

A fishermen’s association in Zielona Gora, a city in western Poland, said on Friday it was suspending fishing in the river due to as yet unconfirmed reports in German media that the river could be contaminated with mercury.

Investigations are underway to determine the cause of the mass fish kill. Large numbers of dead fish were first seen near the town of Olawa in southwestern Poland in late July, along with animals such as beavers.

“Most likely, we are facing a crime in which a substance was introduced into the water that causes the death of fish and other organisms. This is currently being verified,” said Jacek Ozdoba, Poland’s deputy climate and environment minister.

Poland’s political opposition and local residents have accused Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s government of being too slow to tackle the problem.

Przemyslaw Daca, director of Polish Waters, the national water management authority, said on Thursday that 10 tons of dead fish had already been removed from the river.

“This shows that we are dealing with a gigantic and outrageous ecological catastrophe,” he told a news conference near the river, where officials clashed with angry local residents.

Environmental protection authorities in the southwestern city of Wroclaw had earlier notified local prosecutors that the country’s second longest river appeared to have been poisoned.

Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak announced Thursday that both regular soldiers and reservists were being deployed to help remove pollutants from the river, known as Oder in German and Odra in Polish and Czech. It flows north for hundreds of miles from the Oder Mountains of the Czech Republic and empties into the Baltic Sea.

German officials have complained that Poland failed to comply with an international treaty by not immediately notifying them of possible contamination of the river. A ship’s captain first alerted German authorities to dead fish in the river on August 9.

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“We know that the expected reporting chain for such cases did not work,” said Christopher Stolzenberg, a spokesman for the German Federal Environment Ministry.

“We finally got the message yesterday that should have come from the Polish side,” he told reporters in Berlin. “But in fact the contamination on the German side was already known by then.”

Stolzenberg said German authorities were in contact with their Polish counterparts to obtain more information about the situation, including substances found in the water, and to provide requested assistance.

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