Death of Jean-René Auffray: green algae in court
For Yann Auffray, his mother and his sisters, it is a » stage « . This Thursday, October 27, the administrative court of Rennes (Ille-et-Vilaine) must consider the death of their late father and husband: on September 8, 2016, Jean-René Auffray, 50, a confirmed athlete who was jogging in the Gouessant estuary, in Hillion, near Saint-Brieuc (Côtes-d’Armor), was found dead in a mudflat.
Quite quickly, possible poisoning with hydrogen sulphide (H2S) – a very toxic gas emanating from decomposing green algae (ulva) – was suspected. But the case is closed without further action.
In June 2019, the family decides to take the case to court « for culpable deficiency of the public authorities which are the town hall of Hillion, the community of agglomeration of Saint-Brieuc and the prefecture ». The goal: “to have the fault committed by the public authorities recognized and to have the family compensated for the damage suffered following the death of their loved one”, specifies Me François Lafforgue, the family lawyer.
A “danger that cannot be visually identified”
One of the issues of this hearing will relate in particular to the establishment or not of a link between the death of Jean-René Auffray and the ulvas. A bond that his relatives did not have themselves « not done immediately ». « My father was not found in a pile of seaweed », admits Yann Auffray. But, as Annie Le Guilloux, co-president of the Halte aux tides vertes association, points out, it is a « danger that cannot be visually identified ».
Me Lafforgue also thinks that this » causality link « may be established by the court: “On the side of the adversaries, they advance the fact that the autopsy was carried out nineteen days after the death and that, in the absence of an immediate blood test, we cannot have medical certainty on the intoxication by hydrogen. On our side, we foLet us focus on a bundle of presumptions that allow us to make this link: it is in the same place that wild boars and coypus had died in 2016. The results of the toxicological analyzes left little doubt about the origin of their death. And two dogs had already died in the same place in 2008. The analyzes carried out a few days after the death of Jean-René Auffray also revealed an extremely high level of gas, 1,000 ppm (parts per million – Ed), a lethal dose. These elements allow us to say that the gas is likely to be the cause of his death, knowing that the autopsy ruled out causes such as heart defects. »
Toxicity questioned since 2009
« Responsibilities must be established and recognized, and substantive measures commensurate with the challenges must finally be taken to end this scourge that poisons our coasts », awaits the association Halte aux tides vertes, which will be present this Thursday in court to support the Auffray family. The toxicity of decomposing Ulva has indeed been questioned for a long time by environmental associations in Brittany. « This is not the first case » in the Côtes-d’Armor, summarizes Annie Le Guilloux, evoking among other things the death of Thierry Morfoisse, an algae carrier who died in 2009 in Binic.
» Despite all the alerts issued, especially since the death in 2011 of 36 wild boars in the same place, until 2016, no measure was taken by the authorities to prohibit access to this area known to be dangerous, where levels extremely high levels of hydrogen sulphide had nevertheless been noted under the control of a bailiff », laments the activist. In his eyes, the measures taken since then in the Gouessant estuary – piles symbolically blocking the area, accompanied by explanatory panels – are insufficient.
Above all, the problem of ulvas, which nevertheless forces communities to close beaches punctually, but at regular intervals, is not taken at the root. The latter has however been known for fifty years: Breton agriculture and intensive farming, which massively reject nitrates into the soil and waterways via effluents (animal waste).
As a result, the waters of Brittany are saturated with nutrients on which the algae feed, in particular nitrogen, which comes directly from nitrates. Their concentration in rivers thus rose from less than 5 mg/l in the 1960s to more than 50 mg/l on average in the 1990s. A proliferation of green algae « more than 90% of agricultural origin », according to a 2021 report by the Court of Auditors. And if, between 1990 and 2014, the concentration of nitrates was almost halved, according to this same report, the rates have stagnated, or even increased slightly since then.
The inaction of the public authorities confirmed six times by the courts
It is the sign of laissez-faire, strongly denounced by associations but also by many institutions: “Arrived at 7e cycle, the ineffectiveness of the successive nitrates action plans is obvious, like that of each of the regional action plans, but nothing seems to be done to remedy this », thus asserted the Environmental Authority, in July 2021. “We are at 3e plan green algae and 7e nitrates action plan. Except that there is still no question of questioning intensive farming. These plans don’t include anything new, except recycled scoops, » adds Annie Le Guilloux.
In its fight, the Halte aux tides vertes association makes it clear that it is not there to « criminalize the farmers ». “They are taken hostage by the agri-food lobbies, which hold the upstream and the downstream. Farmers find themselves uberized: owners of their production tool, without mastering its uses, forced into a permanent race to debt», Analyzes the activist. The relatives of Jean-René Auffray do not say anything else. Yann, his sisters and his mother warn: they are not « with a view to finding the culprits » let alone « target » Farmers. “You have to understand that it is not the farmers who are being attacked. Behind this model, there are men who no longer have control of their production tool. There is social, economic, human and ecological misery there. »
But, despite the dramas, the denial persists. The “wrongful inaction” has however been recognized on several occasions by the public courts. « The failure to take measures to effectively combat the proliferation of green algae in this area has been confirmed by the Nantes administrative court of appeal on five occasions and by the Rennes court in 2018 »,thus recalls Me Lafforgue. “We systematically call into question the slightest accident. We are still cultivating doubt about the link between algae, hydrogen sulphide and accidents regrets Annie Le Guilloux. On October 14, at the regional council, we again heard the right say that it was necessary to take care of the treatment plants to reduce the problem of green algae, but all would be up to standard and that would not change the phenomenon! »
A medical intervention protocol finally implemented in 2022
The activist recalls that it took until 2021 for 12 sensors to measure hydrogen sulphide levels to be installed in Brittany. And September 2022 for the implementation of a specific intervention protocol in the event of suspected intoxication, in order to identify the causes of a suspicious death or discomfort (samples to be taken, when and where to send them ).
“But that doesn’t mean the situation is under control. It is not because there is monitoring that we have to resign ourselves to living with green algae. We must give ourselves the means to fight them at the root”, insists the co-president of the association, who does not fail to recall that « all the progress made in this case has been achieved thanks to militant combat ».
« We want to act and not react »,says Yann Auffray, for whom this procedure is similar to a « citizen approach ». “The procedure will not bring my father back. But green algae, there will always be some, even if we pick them up. We want the state to be faced with its responsibilities and to act, to attack the sources of the problem in order to protect citizens. »