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The SABIC brine fields

As you travel north on the A178 from Port Clarence towards Seaton Carew you may notice to the east of the road an unusual array of fenced compounds set within what appears to be an expanse of grazing marsh. This is the No4 Brinefield.

The North Tees brinefields owe their origin to the discovery of subterranean salt deposits in the nineteenth century, which were subsequently exploited by solution mining techniques. The resulting concentrated brine was important in the early development of the Teesside chemical industry in the period after the First World War.  However, the underground cavities created are now used for the safe storage of large volumes of materials by a company called SABIC. SABIC and its predecessors (notably ICI Chemicals and Polymers) have a long track record of working hand in hand with nature conservation bodies, both statutory and non-statutory. 

Aside from fenced compounds and pipelines there is relatively little infrastructure above ground level, so large tracts of wetland remain on the brinefields, including saltmarsh and saline lagoons. These habitats are important for breeding and wintering waterbirds – such as Avocets Recurvirostra avosetta, Lapwings Vanellus vanellus and Curlews Numenius arquata – as well as for interesting saltmarsh flora. Somewhat counter-intuitively, the most diverse saltmarsh habitats occur in the south-east of No4 Brinefield, most distant from direct influence by estuarine waters. Profuse growths of Glasswort Salicornia spp., Annual Seablite Suaeda vera and Sea Aster Aster tripolium are complemented by scarcer plants such as Sea Arrow Grass Triglochin maritima and Wild Celery Apium graveolens

In the mid-1990s a new saline lagoon was created in the extreme north-west of No4 Brinefield, close to Greatham Creek, with funding coming from the Northumbrian Water Environment Trust and English Nature. The 0.8ha lagoon is fed with estuarine water via a culverted pipe connecting it with the Tidal Pool which lies to the east, and contains a small island dressed with cockle shells which over the years has proved attractive as a breeding site for both Avocet and Common Tern Sterna hirundo.

East of the Long Drag embankment (an old sea wall made redundant by the land-claims of the 1970s) one of Teesside’s larger reedbeds forms part of No6 Brinefield. Reed Warblers Acrocephalus scirpaceus and Sedge Warblers A. schoenobaenus are common breeding birds, and the rare Savi’s Warbler Locustella luscinoides nested in 1994. A 9ha area of land north of here was leased to English Nature as part of Teesmouth National Nature Reserve in the early 1990s, and a tidal exchange lagoon constructed.

In December 2013 disaster struck the Brinefields in the form of Britain’s most damaging North Sea tidal surge in 60 years. An antiquated section of sea wall on the south bank of Greatham Creek gave way, causing catastrophic flooding across the site. While pollution was avoided, the surge caused considerable economic damage. Major improvements to and realignments of the Greatham Creek tidal defences were clearly required, and these were subsequently completed by the Environment Agency in 2018.    

Most of the SABIC Brinefields are now protected by national and international designations, and industrial activities are carefully regulated under the guidance of a management group whose regular meetings are facilitated by INCA.

Brinefield No.4.  Elements of saltmarsh and early successional habitats thrive in the extensive open spaces between the brinewells.