The River Lea is still polluted and people are blaming the Environment Agency

Photo credit: Alastair Binnie-Lubbock

Update 14/03 : Since publication yesterday the Environment Agency has got in touch to let us know that the amount of oil removed from the River Lea has risen to 80,000 litres.

DEAD birds, fish and rats were among the debris pulled out of the water last Sunday, as residents decided to take matters into their own hands to clear up the still-polluted River Lea.

On Sunday, a group of live-aboard boaters called the Lea Boaters Collective organised a community clean-up of the river, using canoes, colanders and gardening equipment to remove oil and debris from the water. Locals are frustrated with what they perceive to be a lack of progress by the Environment Agency in cleaning up the water.

Yesterday,  in a letter addressed to the Environment Agency, the Canals & Rivers Trust, and the Government campaigners wrote: “Local residents, businesses, rowers, walkers, tourists and live-aboard boaters have been subject to harmful fumes, along with the sight of dead and contaminated wildlife; not to mention the toxic waste itself.

“The slow emergency response by both the Environment Agency and the Canal & River Trust enabled the contamination to spread up- and downstream over five miles of waterway.

“Throughout this environmental disaster communication between agencies and the affected communities has been substandard, and has fallen short of the most basic expectations.”

Ian Rathbone, councillor for Lea Bridge, hopes that the incident will serve as a wake-up call to set up a “proper waterways authority” to look after the river.

“Lea Bridge ward councillors have campaigned for years with local conservationists like Save Lea Marshes for the river and canal to be cared for, in the face of weak excuses and uncaring indifference from the Environment Agency and the Canals & Rivers Trust, who spend more time blaming one another than doing anything to protect our waterways,” he said.

“This latest catastrophe of the oil spill demonstrates once again that no organisation is taking proper responsibility anymore for our precious waterways, leaving it to a small bunch of dedicated volunteers to try and tackle the problem.”

Although The Swan Sanctuary rescued more than 30 swans and other waterbirds after the spill, many birds were not so lucky. Alastair Binnie-Lubbock, a Green Party candidate for Hackney Downs, is concerned about the impact on the wildlife after more dead animals were found on Sunday.

“There was a whole bunch of birds, fish, a baby rat and pigeons. These are all dead and in oil,” he said. “I don’t think [the Environment Agency] have done enough and I don’t feel like locals have been well-informed or consulted.”


Adler and Allan is an emergency response company tasked with cleaning up the river. One worker at the river near Lea Bridge told the Hackney Post that the inexperience of volunteers had made his job more difficult.

“They’ve used non-lined bags, pulled oil out of the water and its leaked all over the pavement. This is what people are going to track (up the canal towpath) by foot, bike, dog and child.”

Although the oil is gradually clearing, some slicks that have been boomed off are floating down in clumps. Boat owners have also ignored pleas from the Canal and Rivers Trust not to travel up and down the canal, enabling oil to float downstream.

“Somebody cut the padlock off at Tottenham lock even though the Environment Agency and the canals trust have said ‘this lock is closed,’” the worker said.

“These are the same people who are complaining that the waterways aren’t clean, but it’s because we can’t contain it.”

Volunteer Sophie Scott disputed that portrayal, tweeting: “It was Boaters who refused to move & insisted close the locks. It was contractors who left an oil filled boom on the towpath.”

Emily Nicholl of the Lea Boaters Collective said: “Volunteers on the day were extremely dedicated and meticulous, washing the towpath with plant based biodegradeable detergent once finished, and cordoning off the waste area with clear signage.”

A spokesperson for the Environment Agency said: “So far almost 80,000 litres of oily water and significant amounts of contaminated debris have been removed. Our environment officers have identified a potential source, which we are investigating.

“Our officers work round the clock to protect people and wildlife from pollution incidents, and are working closely with Thames Water and the Canal and River Trust to investigate what happened here.”

Theresa Rooney, who currently lives on a boat on the River Lea, said: “It’s really affected the wildlife. But it’s better than it was… before it was like a big rainbow.”