Katharine Viner has forwarded your letter on behalf of Save Lea Marshes in response to the photo essay published on 7 April 2021.
The photographer, Sophia Evans, is local to the area and is aware of the pollution issues in the river.
In order to acknowledge those issues we took the following steps:
1. We added the following words from her to the first caption.
“As a local to this area I was aware of levels of city pollution in the River Lea, like many other city waterways, & the Latin-American community I encountered were also wise to it. But, with the horror of the Covid Pandemic all around, people needed an escape from confined flats & housing, and their attitude was that the virus to them was a much bigger threat. The river to this community is a childhood memory, a place of social and emotional comfort, and an escape.”
2. We noted at the end of the gallery that environmental authorities advise against swimming in the River Lea.
3. We published a group of letters in response – from those who were highlighting concerns:https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/apr/08/the-river-lea-is-plagued-by-pollution-it-is-no-place-for-a-swim
We included a link to those letters beneath the subheading of the photo gallery.
4. We amended the headline and subheading to better reflect what was being depicted in the images and to note the concerns about pollution.
We appreciate you and others drawing these issues to our attention in connection with the piece and trust that the steps we have taken address your concerns.
We believe that the piece now is a fuller portrayal of the place and events.
Dear June Sheehan,
Thank you for your reply. We would like to point out that the amendments to your photo essay fail to deal with some critical issues which we covered in our letter to the Guardian. Pollution is a threat to the health of swimmers. However, the swimmers and others drawn to this site by articles like the one you published pose a threat to the environment and wildlife at the River Lea, causing extensive damage and leaving behind mountains of litter. We highlighted these issues in our letter when we wrote:
As a result of hundreds of people travelling here and assembling daily on the banks of the river throughout the spring and summer of 2020, drawn by media content such as this, many wildlife species were disturbed and failed to breed successfully. This includes Red List kingfishers, who abandoned their nest, and little owls who abandoned their young because of the volume of people and the noise of the huge crowds. One of the photos in the piece sympathetically recounts someone turning on a large amplified sound system at this important site for nature conservation without thought for the consequences.
This is a fragile river habitat and not a beach. Photographs of people with inflatable beach gear and posing in bikinis gives the impression that this is an alternative beach destination. In fact, using this area as a ‘beach’ has led to serious compaction of the river banks; they should be covered in vegetation and are now bare and lifeless. A beautiful mature tree was cut down by the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority because a man broke his hip while using it as a swing and had to be taken to hospital. Fire engines were called out when people’s barbecues got out of control and set fire to the woodland – had this happened on the meadow on the opposite bank, the whole area could have been destroyed, with long term and devastating consequences for wildlife.
Further to this we would also point out Hackney Marsh by the Old Lea is designated a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINC) of London-wide importance. Promoting this area as a party destination obscures the real and serious damage to the environment and wildlife caused by large crowds assembling here.
We still believe this article should be removed. Your new superior headline ‘How Londoners were Drawn to a River’ reflects the ongoing issue with the piece; will your audience look at the beautiful photographs and still consider this location worth visiting, particularly on a hot and sunny day? We think they will, and if they do, this feature will have worsened the impact upon the environment as well as the risk to human health from such tourism.
Save Lea Marshes