How Greed and Incompetence Killed Poland’s Second Largest River
When our group arrived in Widuchowa, a village south of Szczecin in Western Poland, we all said one thing at some point during our stay: “It’s a shame we can’t send smells over social media.”
It wasn’t because it was pleasant.
The Oder is the second largest river in Poland. Starting in Czechia, it flows through southern Poland before meeting with the Neisse, where it forms a natural border with Germany, flowing all the way to the Baltic Sea’s Szczecin Lagoon.
As of last week, the river is effectively dead, with thousands of dead fishes showing up on beaches, steadily heading downstream along a wave of what can only be described as liquid death. Liquid death that we only learned about four days ago.
By all accounts, fish started dying en-masse on July 27th, somewhere in the vicinity of Oława in the Lower Silesian voivodeship. The problem made local headlines, with locals reporting the issue to the provincial environmental protection agency.
Samples of the water were taken by the Polish environmental protection agency. That’s about all that was done. Locals weren’t warned. The Germans weren’t informed. It almost seemed as if someone hoped that the problem would dissolve downstream.
Two weeks later, the news finally broke through in mainstream media as people grew tired of the government’s lack of response. At that point, the wave of death reached Wrocław, the largest city on the Oder, and it wasn’t just taking fish but beavers and birds as well. Two days later, it arrived in Frankfurt an der Oder, the largest German town on the river. At the same time, Grzegorz Witkowski, deputy minister of infrastructure, announced that the Oder was safe and declared that he was going to walk into it after his conference to prove it. Fortunately for him, he never did.
Friday morning, the first dead fish and even beavers started popping up in popular bathing locations in Szczecin, and Saturday morning, we were invited by Left MP Katarzyna Kotula to tour the area to witness and document the devastation firsthand.
When we arrived in Widuchowa, we had just passed Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s convoy as we were heading there from Gryfino, where backflow stopped the wave from arriving. Morawiecki wasn’t in Widuchowa to talk to local officials and ask them what they needed. He was there for a photo op and skedaddled as soon as he got what he wanted. All in all, his visit took 15 minutes, tops.
As we walked toward the river, we understood why Morawiecki left in such a hurry. The air was filled with the stench of death, a stench that makes you realize what you’re witnessing. A reporter from Poland’s public-TV-turned-propaganda-tube TVP stood on a makeshift barrier in the river as she tried to compose herself before recording an update. The stench didn’t make it easy.
Her update was probably a part of another report presenting Morawiecki as a hero fighting against an unavoidable catastrophe. Earlier in the day, the prime minister announced a 1 million zloty reward (around $200,000) for pointing out the person responsible for the pollution of the Oder. “We will restore the Oder to its former beauty,” Morawiecki announced before firing the heads of Poland’s river management company and environmental protection agency for failing to inform him about the severity of the situation before Wednesday.
The scene after his departure didn’t bring any credence to his words, as soldiers and firefighters alike struggled to pull out dead fish with hobbyist equipment bought in a local fishing store; some even resorted to pitchforks. Local officials were called in to join in on the fun of staged photos with the country’s leader. They didn’t even get a chance to have an actual conversation with him. As we arrived in Ognica, the next village over, we knew this wasn’t anywhere close to under control.
The smell only got worse, with hundreds of fish stuck in the reeds and in the small canals surrounding the village. While in Widuchowa, the stench was only apparent in close proximity to the barrier. In Ognica, it was inescapable, and death wasn’t just in the water; it was in the air, I could feel my eyes itching, and I could feel irritation on my palms, despite touching nothing but my phone. As we took photos of the devastation, the worst part is we still don’t know what we were dealing with.
Despite over two weeks passing since the initial pollution, we still know next to nothing. Institutions gave conflicting reports. Some didn’t find a cause. Others pointed to mesitylene, a powerful solvent. The Germans found high traces of mercury, which, if confirmed, would’ve spelled a tragic worst-case scenario for our region. The lack of coherent communication or information was deafening. People were bathing and fishing in the river while that wave was coming through. Nobody was warned in the first two weeks. How many people and animals got poisoned by the government’s inelegant under-the-rug-sweep? Who knows?
People didn’t need Morawiecki’s reward to start snooping either. The initial suspicion was placed on Jack-Pol, a paper mill in Oława, which had been dumping waste into the Oder for the last few months. Locals complained about illegal sewage disposal; the owner maintained he had all the necessary permits. Now we know that it’s unlikely Jack-Pol was the primary culprit in what happened, as the source was estimated to be upstream from the paper mill.
What Jack-Pol did reveal, however, was that a lot of businesses have been dumping their sewage into the river for a long time in a lot of places. Some have started theorizing that the wave of death wasn’t a result of a single dump but rather a tragic combination of drought, multiple companies deciding to dump toxic waste into the river, and perhaps even displacement of toxic materials embedded in the riverbed caused by the government’s project to deepen the Oder to help barges navigate it. A perfect storm that created a deadly mix.
Combined with the constant stream of environmental incompetence, a staple of virtually every Polish government since World War II, and an absolute lack of initiative, this was bound to happen eventually. While the Germans were closing canal locks to stop the poison from reaching their waterways, ours remained open, rusted over, and never fixed, despite many pleas from the locals. While Morawiecki’s antics are emblematic of the issue at hand, he’s hardly the only one to blame.
As soon as I got back home, I jumped straight into the shower. It was only when I got out that the magnitude of what I saw hit me. Being a leftist activist in right-wing Poland, it’s really easy to get used to the feeling of disappointment and helplessness, but it never quite felt like this. Bad laws can be changed, horrible education bills can be rolled back, but this? This might take decades to fix. So I decided to do the only thing I really could do. Tell people about what’s going on. I started with a private post, and I ended it with the words that were popping up in my head non-stop ever since I got home: “they f**king killed our river.”
And here I am, telling you this story. One that’s incomplete and will, unfortunately, have devastating sequels. The horror I saw in Ognica is nothing compared to what’s going on in Krajnik Dolny, a village a few kilometres upstream from where we were standing today. The wave of death will soon arrive at the Szczecin Lagoon, one of the most bio-diverse habitats in Poland, which will probably become another grim cemetery in this tragedy of errors.
Time will pass, and we’ll likely find the most “toxic” culprit, who’ll shoulder most of the public blame. The greed that killed the river. Unfortunately, the incompetent buffoons that helped turn waste spilling into a full-on eco-catastrophe probably will never be tried. Neither will the officials before them who built the grounds for the government’s spectacular collapse.
We often say that our country is made of cardboard. The last two years, unfortunately, have proved just that and exposed everything that the cardboard was hiding. Dying public healthcare, a total reliance on fossil fuels, an economy on the brink of collapse, and just when I thought that there was no way that this country could get worse, they managed to murder a river in a crime of greed and incompetence. Ecocide, which should be tried in international tribunals, but instead will likely be met with a 5-year-sentence for a scapegoat that lit the fuse of a bomb that was over 70 years in the making. A bomb that could’ve been defused at any time if only someone in government cared enough to do something about it.
Unfortunately, as is often the case in Poland, no one cared until it was too late.