Poland’s government in hot water over fish die-off

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WARSAW — Thousands of dead fish have been found along the Oder River running between Poland and Germany, with officials on both sides of the border warning of an ecological catastrophe.

It’s turning into a political problem for Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, as the opposition accuses it of ignoring early signals of pollution on the river.

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki called the incident “exceptionally scandalous,” adding: “Those responsible for it will be severely punished.” 

Fishermen started noticing problems near Oława, about 400 kilometers from the sea, in late July. Polish Water, the government body in charge of inland waters, said that at least 10 tons of dead fish have been found along the river, and even the Polish army was called in to help remove them. 

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The cause is still unclear.

Polish Water said that initial tests found toxic substances in the river, and authorities on Friday issued a warning for people not to bathe in the Oder.

“We are most likely dealing with a crime where a substance was introduced into the water that caused fish and other organisms to die. This is being verified at the moment,” Deputy Climate and Environment Minister Jacek Ozdoba told locals on Thursday.

German broadcaster RBB said Thursday that “high levels of mercury” were found in water samples from the Oder.

“We don’t have [the results] officially yet but they do in fact point to massive exposure to mercury as a factor,” Gregor Beyer, head of the environmental administration in Germany’s Märkisch-Oderland district, told RBB on Friday morning. Polish authorities haven’t confirmed the German reports.

On Thursday, the ministry of environment of the German state of Brandenburg accused Poland of keeping the problem under cover.

“It must be said that the reporting chains between the Polish and German sides did not work in this case. A report by the Polish authorities is still pending. We have therefore contacted the Polish authorities and are asking for clarification immediately,” Brandenburg’s Environment Minister Axel Vogel said.

It not just Brandenburg that’s angry. Polish environmentalists accuse the government of trying to ignore the issue.

“The government is in chaos,” said Małgorzata Tracz, an MP with the Polish Greens, condemning the lack of protective equipment for fishermen removing dead fish from the river and mixed messages from the government; Deputy Infrastructure Minister Grzegorz Witkowski on Thursday said he’d have no problem taking a dip in the river.

Witkowski was shouted down by angry locals asking: “What are you talking about? Where’s the government? Gone on vacation?” 

Other opposition parties are also berating the government, and the issue could become a political liability ahead of next year’s parliamentary election.

“This is one of the biggest environmental scandals of recent years. We’re all like those fish in the Oder,” Donald Tusk, head of Civic Platform, the largest opposition party, told a meeting with voters Friday.