August 11, 2009

France Struggles With Toxic Seaweed

France's northern coast is dealing with a build up of large amounts of putrefied green algae releasing poisonous fumes blamed for the recent death of a horse and the collapse of the rider, AFP reported.

Local authorities have declared parts of the coastline off-limits, as they are currently unable to get rid of the decomposing seaweed that has washed up on shores in more than 80 communities across Brittany.

Green groups have blamed intensive farming for producing nitrates that feed the seaweed's toxicity and are accusing President Nicolas Sarkozy's government of turning a blind eye to an "environmental cancer" caused by the algae.

Late last month, veterinarian Vincent Petit lost consciousness and his horse collapsed when he slipped on a patch of rotting algae near the beach of Saint-Michel-en-Greve. A crew of workers who happened to be nearby pulled Petit to safety. However, his horse died almost instantly.

He has since threatened to sue local authorities in a string of coastal communities in Brittany's Cote d'Armor region for reckless endangerment.

Rene Ropartz, mayor of Saint-Michel-en-Greve, said the death of the horse might be the opportunity to get things moving so that finally something is done.

A rally of some 400 people turned out Sunday on the town's beach, demanding action from the government to do something about the green algae problem.

The small town has already spent around $212,000 to clean up the algae, but it has barely made a dent. Ropartz said two or three years ago they would collect a maximum of 21,000 tons of algae.

"This year, we are going to beat those records by a long shot," he added.

In early August, clean up operations stopped the same amount of green algae usually collected by the end of October, according to Yvette Dore, mayor of the nearby town of Hillion.

While the area has dealt with the algae problem for over 30 years, local leaders say even more green algae has washed up this year and in new territories along the Atlantic coast.

Fed by seeping farm chemicals, the green algae grows in shallow waters like the wide bays in Brittany. Environmental groups are encouraging Brittany's farmers, mostly pig raisers, to take action to prevent nitrates from polluting the water.

"Everyone knows that only a major reduction of the use of fertilizers and other nitrogen chemicals will result in a lower green algae tide," the Eau et Rivieres de Bretagne said on Monday.

The group has accused the government of ignoring the algae problem and believes shutting down beaches is not the answer.

Fumes from the seaweed can be noxious in some cases depending on the state of putrefaction and people are advised to stay away from them, according to local doctor Pierre Philippe.

Joel Le Jeune, mayor of Tredrez-Locquemeau, said up until now, it was not a major problem, other than the cleanup and the cost of those operations -- but now the safety of people and animals is at stake.

He has since barred access to a large strip of the coastline where the green algae is thick and potent, as workers had been unable to clean up that area due to the rugged terrain.

However, Dore described it as an agricultural problem that went far beyond their district and added that locally elected officials are powerless to deal with it effectively.