‘Catastrophe’ hits historic river

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For the past 30 years, politicians, bureaucrats and environmentalists have prided themselves on cleaning up the river that runs through Oslo from the hills to the fjord. In the course of just one day last week, all their work was ruined by a chemical spill, and the river has now been declared effectively dead.

The river Akerselva runs from a lake in the hills north of Oslo, through the city and down to the fjord. PHOTO: Views and News

Once an industrial artery of sorts, the river known as Akerselva and the banks along it have been transformed into a scenic and historic landmark. The river, seen as the traditional dividing line between Oslo’s east and west sides, runs from the lake called Maridalsvannet, a source of Oslo’s drinking water, through the city to the waterfront next to Oslo’s new Opera House.

In recent years it has blossomed with footpaths, swimming areas and new mixed-used development including popular residential communities. Taking the tram to its northern end and walking all the way down to the fjord is a popular pasttime. Akerselva has also been carefully restocked over the years with fish, and fishing spots have sprung up along its banks.

Experts now think it will take at least two years before the river will be able to sustain fish or other forms of life. PHOTO: Views and News

Last week, however, officials discovered that an estimated 6,000 liters of chlorine had spilled into the river from a new water treatment facility at its northern end. They quickly realized the spill was “serious,” after dead fish started turning up all along its route.

By Tuesday they were calling the spill a “catastrophe” and were baffled over how it could have occurred at a modern water treatment facility deemed as being among the best in the world.

“This is a brand new facility, and something like this never should have happened,” the city’s top environmental official, Jøran Kallmyr of the Progress Party, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “This is a sad day.”

Both he and Erik Solheim, the state government minister in charge of environmental issues from the Socialist Left party (SV), visited the facility on Tuesday for a crisis meeting and to review the damage. Solheim was equally shaken and joined Kallmyr in promising that the river will once again be rehabilitated. Money, Kallmyr vowed, won’t be an issue.

“It’s illuminating that something like this can happen where it shouldn’t,” Solheim told news bureau NTB. “We can’t guard ourselves against accidents, but we must have systems in place to limit the consequences of a spill like this.”

An engineer at Oslo’s water and sewage department (Vann- og avløpsetaten), Terje Wold, told newspaper Dagsavisen that the spill was linked to “an error” in the lines connecting two chlorine tanks. One of them ruptured, and a vent and other systems also didn’t function as they should have, Wold said. “One of the tanks was virtually sucked dry,” he said, and an alarm system that should have notified plant workers of large amounts of chlorine going through the system had been turned off.

Environmental organizations Bellona and Friends of the Earth Norway (Naturvernforbundet) have filed police charges to force an investigation and citations. “We also want to ensure that the city water department take responsibility, to get Akerselva back to the state it was in, as quickly as possible,” Marius Dalen of Bellona told Dagsavisen.

As dead frogs, salmon, trout, crayfish and even insects continue to float up along the river, experts said the restoration efforts may take at least two years, or more.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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