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Olympic Stink on the River Lea

By Mike Wells

. Recent dredging of the Lee NavigationRecent dredging of the Lee Navigation

The Lea is a largish river, it flows from Luton through north east London, and into the river Thames at Leamouth. All is not well with the Lea, as Simon Bamford, General Manager, of British Waterways (BW) in London, comments the …

“[water] quality on the River Lee Navigation has been an issue of concern for many years, affecting local residents, wildlife, boaters and other waterway users … “in hot weather the silt on the bottom of the river sometimes rises into huge slick's' which are both unsightly and smell foul.”

The problem of poor water quality in the river is not surprising because Deephams Sewage Works in north London pumps almost a quarter of a million cubic metres of treated sewage per day into the Lea. The environment agency do not have figures for untreated sewage discharged into the river. However it is well known locally that raw sewage overflows are discharged from Deephams into the Lee Navigation every time it rains heavily in the catchment area. About eight years ago after an exceptionally heavy downpour the Lea Navigation was awash with dead fish because of the scale of the raw sewage discharge.

Sewage from Deephams enters the Lea via Pymme’s Brook at Tottenham. Above Tottenham (away from the sewage) water quality is good, you can often see the sandy riverbed though the river’s clear water. Below Tottenham the riverbed consists of black rancid stinking slurry. Opposite Pymme’s Brook at the point sewage enters the Lea it is not uncommon for boats to become stuck in the fetid matter discharged from Deephams.

According to Del Brenner, a member of the London Waterways Commission, sewage is not the only problem causing the lower Lea’s summer time blues. He argues that the huge quantity of drinking water extracted from the Lea by Thames Water reduces the flow in the river, and this combined with the sewage causes stagnation. (Environment Agency (EA) figure for water abstraction,120 million cubic metres per year).

The EA’s answer to the lower Lea’s problems is to dredge the stinking sediment from the river and send it for landfill at a cost of over £7 million. But the EA have no plans to reduce water extraction or to reduce the amount of sewage discharged into the river and so the dredging is likely to prove only a short-term solution: until the sewage residue builds up again.

But why after years of neglect is money being spent on the Lea now? The answer to this question lies in the fact that Lea and its tributaries run smack through the Olympic Park (OP). The risk that dignitaries visiting the Games might smell genuine London shit, doesn’t sit comfortably with the Olympic brand. And as if to demonstrate this point the waterways downstream of the Olympic Zone are not being dredged despite the fact that they also stagnate during the summer months?

Prescott Lock: .Prescott Lock .
Now well under way is the construction of a new lock across the Prescott Channel, a waterway close to the Lea. The project was presented as giving access for freight barges to the waterways of the OP, and was pushed through despite the fact that other routes for barge access already existed. Before work on the Lock began Del Brenner and others were arguing the £19 million project was flawed. No one listened, and even before completion it has been announced that there is insufficient depth of water for the cargo barges to operate.

But that may not matter to Olympic bosses, as the new lock has the effect of reducing the tidal rise and fall on the OP waterways. This eliminates both the sight and smell of mud at low tide, adding value to waterside properties. Del Brenner comments that the rationale behind this work appeared to be …

“ the encouragement and promotion of building development”.

He also notes that …

“[British] Waterways present prime role in London … seems to be a concentration on property development rather than as a navigation authority.” (the Lea in Good Hands page 4).

The risk of olfactory offence to dignitaries visiting the Games is bad enough but after the 5 ringed circus has left town one can imagine an attractive couple, like those in the shiny photos plastered over the hoardings of construction sites. They are on a show-flat balcony over looking the River Lea, looking happy, imagining the lovely life they will have in this gorgeous riverside apartment, then a stinking island of riverbed bubbles its way to the surface. The estate agents smile vanishes.

Dredging of the Lea is certainly required in some places for navigational purposes. However as recent research from the United States points out there is an argument that dredging will stir up years of industrial contamination to the detriment of wildlife and plants (see 'Sediment Dredging at Superfund Megasites'). Furthermore, a long-term solution would include effective policing of industrial pollution, a reduction in the extraction of drinking water, and the elimination of sewage discharge. A fact acknowledged in the EA’s own Water Quality Framework Directive. However there are no plans to implement any of these solutions within the next decade.

Olympic bosses argue that the Games provide a “unique” opportunity to find money for projects which otherwise would have been impossible to fund. While there maybe some justification for non-Olympic agencies picking up the tab for some Games related schemes, the enormity of the Olympic budget is an embarrassment, and sets the stage for a bit of creative accounting; perhaps shifting Olympic related costs onto different institutions’ balance sheets. A number of agencies are paying for the Presott Lock, while the dredging of the Lea is shared between the EA and the Olympic Delivery Authority.

So what if costs show on different agencies’ accounts? The so what is the fact that the Olympics has an opportunity cost. In other words if public bodies are spending on the Olympics they can’t spend on their core commitments. Dredging sediment from the Lea is a highly visible, and smellable, operation. Less visible, but equally stinky, is the dredging of the public purse to pay for the scheme. If work on the Lea and the Prescott Lock are anything to go by, in return for these raids on public funds, we end up with rushed poorly thought out projects which don’t fulfil their stated aims. Projects, which in reality are designed to boost the profits of developers. A situation, which will no doubt eventually create a stink of its own.

All photos: © Mike Wells

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