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Belgian Authorities Blame French Sugar Beet Refinery Leak For Downstream Mass Fish-kill

TOURNAI, Belgium

50-70 tonnes of fish have died in Wallonia, Belgium, blamed on contamination from a leak in a settling pond at a sugar beet refinery across the border in France.

Tereos, owners of the processing facility in France, admit a leak was found 10 April that led to a spill of wastewater into a tributary of the Scheldt River, but claims there is no proven link between the spill and a reduction in oxygen levels resulting in the fish kill. Belgian authorities have accused the French factory of being too slow in issuing a warning.

Wallonia authorities want to understand why there was a failure in communications and threatened to impose the provincial limit of a possible fine of up to $1.2 Million USD, saying they were informed about the fish kill by a phone call from a member of the public ten days after the event. Had they known sooner, they claim, they could have deployed containment efforts and avoided some of the damage. Authorities in Wallonia claim that it could take as much as three years to “normalise” conditions in the river.

The Belgian region of Flanders, further downstream, was also affected and has promised to hold Tereos responsible for the river clean-up. Civil authorities installed pumps to increase aeration, thereby lessening any adverse effect from the spill. The Flemish government has pledged to seek redress from Tereos; the claim would cover the cost of the pumps and compensation for restoration of the biodiversity.

Flemish Environment Minister Zuhal Demir also holds French authorities responsible. “There are international warning systems for this kind of case, which France did not use. It is incomprehensible,” she said. (The Brussels Times)

Tereos' position is that the leak was repaired and river water quality returned to normal by April 13. In a 23 April statement, the company acknowledged that "an incident occurred on April 10 at the Tereos sugar factory located at Escaudœuvres in France, near the city of Cambrai. A leak occurred from a water basin containing organic plant-based elements (in this case beet wash water) to the Escaut nearby river".

Tereos says it immediately implemented actions necessary to respond to the urgency of the situation and alerted the competent French authorities, mentioning the specific point of the Escaut river. The company says it was contacted following the discovery of dead fish in Belgium more than 30 km from the sugar refinery, saying that  "At this stage, it is still too early to establish any causal link. Tereos, as a corporate citizen, will assume its responsibility if it were to be established".