Oil spill calls for urgent response

Petition demanding protection for local waterways has been signed by almost 6,500 people

By Quentin Given

Credit: Lea Boaters Collective


We’re used to seeing oil slicks in the River Lea, the rainbow colours spreading out on the water, the sulphurous smell, the soiling of swans and other birds. But 11 February was something else. Thick black gobbets of oil drifting down the river, clinging to boats, ropes and the steel stanchions that make up the river bank.

I was one of the first to witness it, and phoned the Environment Agency to report it. The Agency did not respond. The next day, contractors appeared at Ferry Lane to put in place extra booms across Pymmes Brook, where the oil was entering the Lea, and in the river, and, later, absorbent pads to soak up some of the oil. But by then the oil had already spread downstream.

I never heard back from the Agency directly. Boats going upstream inadvertently took some of the oil with them, and rowers and canoeists carried on paddling through the oil for a full fortnight – getting it all over themselves – before the Agency told them to stop.

The Swan Sanctuary rescued and cleaned many swans, but for some swans – as well as coots, moorhens and other birds, it was too late.

Anger about the situation spread, the Lea Boaters Collective took the initiative to launch a petition, and river users, neighbours and environmental groups came together to support it. To date the petition has over 6,000 signatures, and media coverage – initially slow – has now included the BBC, Hackney Gazette and Evening Standard.

The Environment Agency now tells us it has identified the source, but can’t say more because it is subject to legal proceedings. We hope the perpetrator is prosecuted, and this serves as a warning to other industries that they can’t – whether deliberately or accidentally – allow this kind of pollution to continue.

Ultimately, we need better prevention, and faster and more effective responses – and much better local communication – if it does recur.

The Environment Agency has promised to review its arrangements with the Canal and River Trust, but we know the Agency has had its budget cut massively, so we need to go further.

We are calling for a Parliamentary inquiry. Local MP David Lammy has already raised the issue in the House of Commons. On 16 May Labour’s front-bench spokesperson Sue Hayman MP and Edmonton MP Kate Osamor came with us to see the problem, and promised to set up an open meeting with representatives of the Environment Agency and the Canal and River Trust to put pressure on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to put things right.

For more information about Tottenham and Wood Green Friends of the Earth: Click here