Firefighting deadly for river

2015-08-28 16:23

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Kirchberg - The tiny Jagst River is considered a "natural jewel" in south-western Germany. But, after contaminated water from a firefighting effort entered the river, it now faces deadly contamination along a 120km stretch. Efforts are afoot to contain the damage, but it's anybody's guess as to when the river will be completely restored to health again.

Kuenzelsau - Environmentalists and pollution control workers are sounding the alarm about possible long-term damage to a small river in south-western Germany after it was contaminated by water used to extinguish a fire at a milling factory and fertilizer warehouse at the weekend.

The Jagst River - described by nature preservationists as a "jewel" for its rich variety of plant and animal life - is already showing signs of contamination, in the form of tons of dead poisoned fish and other animals along the river.

Experts were warning that the contamination might affect a good 120km stretch of the river, a tributary to the Neckar. Efforts are now under way to rescue fish that have survived so far and to try to prevent the contamination from spreading.

"We must do everything to deal with this ecological catastrophe in the Jagst as well as possible and to limit the after-effects," Franz Untersteller, environment minister of the southern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, said.

The focus now, according to Kurt Kreimes, a water resources official with the state's nature preservation office in Karlsruhe, concerns when the contaminated water will reach the Neckar. The estimates now are three to seven day' time. "But we can't say yet what the concentration will be."

The fire near the town of Kirchberg blazed in the late hours of Saturday and early Sunday. It started at a factory, but spread to a building where large amounts of fertilizer containing ammonia were stored. Despite the efforts of firefighters, some of the water used to extinguish the blaze managed to drain into the Jagst.

By midweek, the contaminated water had reached the neighbouring district, with ammonia nitrate levels measured at 4.26mg per litre, according to officials in the town of Kuenzelsau, some 20km to the west of Kirchberg. A concentration of more than 0.5mg is deadly for fish.

The poison in the Jagst is colourless and invisible, Kreimes said. It drifts along in the water like a boat and dissipates only very slowly because the speed of the current is not the same at every point along the river.

Worst contamination in years

One effort to reduce the poison concentration levels was getting under way at the nearby town of Mulfingen, where a local company began pumping pure oxygen into the river. At the same time, fresh water from a flood control reservoir was being fed into the river.

Numerous volunteer workers were trying to rescue those fish and mussels that had managed to survive. Fish were being stunned with electrical shock equipment, then gathered up in nets, to be taken to other streams and rivers in the area.

Assessing the damage so far, the environmentalist group BUND told regional broadcaster SWR: "This is the largest river contamination in Baden-Wuerttemberg in decades, probably (the biggest) since the chemical accident at the Sandoz company in 1986 near Basel, when the entire eel population was wiped out along 400km of the Rhine River."

Hannes Huber, spokesperson for the nature preservation group Nabu in Baden-Wuerttemberg, said the contamination was affecting all the river's living organisms - not only fish, but also insect larvae, worms, small river crabs and others.

"We must work under the assumption that most of these have died. This is fatal, naturally, for the affected species, but also for those species dependent on them for their nutrition."

Huber described the Jagst as special.


"This is not just some canal, but rather a genuine natural jewel."

Nature Preservation Minister Alexander Bonde adds: "The Jagst is one of the most valuable eco-systems that we have in Baden-Wuerttemberg."

Amid the damage control efforts, some officials are looking ahead to ways to restore the river.

Achim Thoma, chair of a local anglers association, said that an inventory of the fish levels can be taken in the autumn. Then, next spring, careful efforts to return healthy fish to the river might begin. But such measures will also require money.

"You can quickly be talking about several hundred thousand euros," he said.

State water resources official Kreimes says: "It will for certain take years before the river's original state has been reached again."

Read more on:    germany  |  environment

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