Observers

Thousands of fish were found dead on the banks and in the Aisne river near Brécy-Brières in northeastern France on August 10. Local fishermen place the blame on waste runoff from a Nestlé factory in Challerange less than three kilometres away. Volunteers, firefighters and fishermen spent three days clearing the remains of the fish from the river.

Around 9pm on August 9, sludge from Nestlé’s plant in Challerange, which produces powdered milk used in the Nescafé Dolce Gusto line, began flowing into the river Aisne via a pipeline. Factory director Tony do Rio reported that upon learning of the spill, the factory ceased production around 11pm the same evening. Firefighters were called to stop the flow of the pipeline into the river.

The following day, the fishing federation of Ardennes, the department where the pollution occurred, began to report the appearance of dead fish on the banks of the Aisne. Recreational and professional activities were prohibited in the Aisne between Challerange and Vouziers during one week after the spill, and a dam was built to limit the spread of any pollution further along the Aisne and in other local waterways.

On August 12, the Ardennes Fishing Federation sounded a call for volunteers to help clean the dead fish from the river. 

'Heavy pollution on the Aisne, between Challerange and Olizy-Primat, yesterday evening,' the Ardennes Fishing Federation wrote in French in a Facebook post on August 10.
 
On August 12, the Ardennes Fishing Federation made a call for 'strong and motivated arms' to aid in the recuperation of fish.

'The smell of rotting fish was difficult to bear'

Régis Piette, a resident of the area since 1991, helped with the cleanup effort. A certified fishing guide, he learned about the cleanup on social media. 
 
I decided to help with the cleanup as a civic duty. A river has to be protected, as well as its species, for the good of all. The experience was traumatising and difficult to accept. There were about 20 of us, divided into teams. And there were many volunteers all along the banks of the river. I am very sad to see the Aisne touched in this way, and I am very angry this could still happen in our times. I have never seen pollution like this in the river.

During the cleanup, the water had returned to its normal colour, but when the pollution wave passed it was black. I noticed that some dead river branches were black during the cleaning up. The smell of rotting fish was strong and difficult to bear. The strong heat accelerated the decomposition process. The river was carpeted with fish. The slow-moving areas and the vegetation that held the fish were a spectacle of desolation.

After collecting over one tonne of fish on August 13, Piette and other volunteers had cleared most of the debris from the river. According to a statement from the Prefecture of Ardennes, more than two tonnes of fish were recuperated in the first two days of cleanup, with the total damage estimated at 3 to 5 tonnes. The majority of the carcasses were taken to a waste processing plant and safely disposed of.

In the third day of cleaning, volunteers collected one tonne of fish carcasses. In a post on Facebook, the Ardennes Fishing Association advised residents not to touch the fish that are still left on the banks, as they are in a state of decomposition.

Fishing grounds devastated

The Ardennes region is known for its unspoiled natural beauty and plenty of lakes and rivers to fish in. Both local fishermen and tourists who come to the area to fish will be affected by the major species loss in the Aisne. 

Those, like Piette, who fish in the river Aisne will see their activities drastically changed: 
 
It’s inevitable that this pollution will affect the future of fishing, recreational fishing as well as my job as a fishing guide. I'm going to have to relocate my fishing school trips to let this area recover.

Ardennes Fishing Federation President Michel Adam told AFP that all the fish in a 7 kilometre stretch of the Aisne have died. He said the affected fish include 14 species, some of which are protected such as eels and lamprey. Some estimate that it will take more 10 years for the Aisne fish population to recover to previous levels. 

France 3 Grand Est reported that the 70 fishermen of the Challerange fishing company may not renew their membership in the group. Adam estimated that the damage to the river amounts to "several thousand euros”.

Nestlé confirms 'occasional and involuntary overflow without the presence of chemicals'

According to the Prefecture of Ardennes, the death of the fish occurred due to a decrease of oxygen in the water, but an investigation is ongoing by the French Bioversity Office and gendarmerie to determine if any chemical pollution played a part in the death of the fish.

Nestlé has said that its Challerange plant usually only discharges clean water into the Aisne, but confirmed to AFP that “occasional and involuntary overflow of biological sludge effluent, without the presence of chemicals” occurred in its wastewater treatment plant. According to the Ardennes Fishing Federation, some Nestlé employees aided in the cleanup.

The federation has lodged a complaint against Nestlé for violating article 432.2 of France’s environmental code, which prohibits any damage done to the natural ecosystem through discharging or disposing waste into bodies of water.

This article was written by Pariesa Young