METAL thieves are thought to be to blame for causing a chemical spillage which is threatening one of the nation’s most iconic waterways.
Environmentalists have been battling to protect the River Dove after oil from the former Hartington cheese factory contaminated one of its tributaries.
The source of the oil, thought to be a tank at the disused Stonewell Lane site, was located by Environment Agency officers, who have prevented further leaks, but not before it entered the small watercourse which runs through the village, known as the River Harding or Digmer Drain.
Oil absorbent materials have since been placed downstream of the contamination to minimise the impact on the Dove, a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSI), which flows through the popular Wolfscote Dale tourist spot.
River-keeper for a local trout fishery, Andy Heath, who has been helping with the clean-up, said it was too early to determine any long-term damage to the environment and local wildlife, but that he had already pulled from the water one dead snipe, an endangered wading bird susceptible to pollution.
“The ground below the site is acting like a sponge and soaking up the pollution,” he said. “It will be seeping out over a number of weeks and we will be trying to prevent it from getting into the River Dove.
“The Environment Agency has done a lot of good work trying to contain it, which has helped, but they haven’t contained it completely.”
And criticising the condition of the disused cheese factory, he said: “The site has been completely neglected. Potential sources of pollution have never been cleared away, and the place has been left to be ransacked for scrap metal.”
Paul Mollatt, a local resident and RSPB member, said: “I was shocked to see the extent of the oil pollution in the ditch and more concerned that even the soaking mats and boom weren’t enough to prevent the pollution entering into the river, where an extensive film of oil could be seen even further downstream.”
The Environment Agency is continuing to investigate the source and extent of the pollution, first reported on Monday February 6, but says no impact on fish in the River Dove had been observed.
“We are concerned that this loss of oil has occurred in such a sensitive environmental area and we will continue to monitor the situation until the clean-up has been completed. We will also be carrying out further monitoring to determine any impact on the local environment,” they added in a statement.
Locals believe the removal of a metal tap from an oil tank at the former cheese factory - thought to have been taken for its scrap value - caused the pollution.
Teifion Salisbury, of Chesterfield-based developers Cathelco, said: “We are liaising with the Environment Agency to seek a resolution of the problem. Initial findings suggest sabotage on the site.”
lThe Peak District National Authority last month unanimously turned down plans to redevelop the site, which would have seen 39 houses, in addition to new business units, a recreation area, allotments and a car park, built on the site.