Horse dies, France faces reality of toxic beaches
It should have been a perfect day for Vincent Petit, finishing up an afternoon gallop on a wide expanse of beach along a pastel-colored bay. Instead, he and his mount were sucked into a hole of noxious black sludge.
The horse died within seconds, the rider lost consciousness and a dirty secret on the Brittany coast reverberated across France — decaying green algae was fouling some of its best beaches.
A report ordered by the government after the accident found concentrations of hydrogen sulfide gas emitted by the rotting algae were as high as 1,000 parts per million on the beach where the horse died — an amount that "can be fatal in several minutes."
There had been signs of a crisis for years in this idyllic corner of Brittany. But scaring away tourists was in no one's interest, including the farming industry — the region's economic backbone — whose nitrate-packed fertilizers power algae blooms.
In Brittany's Cote d'Armor region, conditions are perfect for its spread — sunlight, shallow waters and flat beaches. Chemical and natural fertilizers like pig excrement, loaded with nitrates and phosphorous, have saturated the land, spilling into rivers and the ocean, feeding the algae that then proliferate.
Harmless while in water, the algae form dangerous gases — notably hydrogen sulfide, with its characteristic rotten-egg smell — when they wash up on land and decay. A white crust forms and traps the gases, which are released when stepped on or otherwise disturbed. Over time, putrefied algae turns sand into a black silt muck, sometimes containing pockets of poison gas.
On July 28, Petit, a 28-year-old researcher in a state-run virology lab, had just finished riding his thoroughbred Sir Glitter, a retired racehorse, on the Saint-Michel-en-Greves beach, when the two were suddenly mired in muck as he led the horse on foot in search of a place to cross a stream running through the sand.
"The horse and I slid in," said Petit, who is also trained in veterinary studies. "A horse in that situation is in an enormous panic, but he didn't have time to struggle."
Petit said he watched horrified as his horse stopped breathing and died within about 30 seconds, then he himself passed out. Petit was pulled from the mire by a bulldozer shovel after a man who witnessed the accident gave the alert.
There have been local efforts to clear the blight. Mayor Rene Ropartz said Saint-Michel-en-Greve, a village of 480 people, collected 10,000 tons of algae from the mile-long beach by the end of July; several years ago they cleaned up 21,000 tons.