Fish deaths in the Oder: Political shrug in Poland

Fish deaths in the Oder: Political shrug in Poland

Poland’s institutions reacted to the contamination of the Oder almost three weeks late. Polish mayors also criticize the PiS.

Two helpers in protective suits with a bucket full of dead fish

Helpers collect bucketfuls of fish carcasses from the Oder River in Krajnik Dolny, Poland Photo: Annegret Hilse / Reuters

WARSAW taz | The stench of rotting fish makes you want to vomit. In the German-Polish border river Oder, tens of thousands of fish with bloated bellies have been floating in the water for days. Anglers sounded the alarm as early as July 26 and informed the Polish authorities. But nothing happened.

Neither the Polish Water Authority, which was newly created in 2018, reacted to the reports, nor did the Main Environmental Inspectorate in Warsaw, which was completely restructured in 2020. Only when thousands of fish carcasses washed ashore on the German section of the Oder on August 10 and Brandenburg politicians accused Poland of not to have informed the neighboring country about the ecological catastrophePolish authorities and government politicians rushed to the Oder.

But in front of the cameras of the state broadcaster TVP Info, they often lined up where from the fish carcasses see and smell as little as possible. Grzegorz Witkowski, Deputy Minister for Infrastructure, calmed down the angry residents of the Oder at an almost picturesque point of the Oder and assured them that he would jump into the Oder and swim there without hesitation. It then stayed with the announcement.

While the Germans received the first laboratory results after just one day, increased mercury levels in the Oder water, Polish politicians were still shrugging their shoulders three weeks after the first signs of the eco-disaster appeared. “Increased salt loads” in the Oder could be a trail that lead to the perpetrators. Poland’s police have offered a million zloty, the equivalent of around 210,000 euros, for the investigation of the perpetrator.

Civil society stood alone

While anglers, environmental activists and committed citizens who had pulled the dead fish out of the Oder with their bare hands reported to hospitals with skin burns, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s (PiS) crisis team sent recreational soldiers from the so-called territorial defense to the Oder, around the river to clean. The crisis management team did not say whether special units to combat chemical accidents were to instruct these so-called “terytorialsi”.

The mayors of the towns and villages bordering the Oder are now openly accusing the PiS government of having informed the citizens of the danger much too late. State authorities did nothing while civil society tried to save the Oder. A number of politicians from Brandenburg and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania also raise the accusation of a lack of information. In response, the prime minister dismissed the two heads of the Polish Waters State Water Authority and the Chief Environmental Inspectorate.

When Morawiecki finally wants to see for himself, he visits the village of Widochuwa on Saturday, which is 25 kilometers from Szczecin/Stettin in the West Pomeranian Voivodeship. The death wave with the fish cadres has only just arrived here. So Morawiecki can’t feel too much of the stench of the first places affected by the ecological catastrophe. “We are doing everything to eliminate the environmental catastrophe as quickly as possible,” assured Poland’s prime minister in a pristine white shirt.

“All services are on alert.” Critically, he noted that although a lot was being done on the Polish side to clean up the Oder, he had to contact the Germans because “there were no corresponding measures on the German side”. Not a word about the fact that Poland’s institutions reacted to the ecological catastrophe almost three weeks late and the Germans – on the day of Morawiecki’s criticism – took around twenty tons of fish carcasses from the Oder.

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