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SEAL SANDS 1000 years of Industry alongside Nature

SEAL SANDS. Located between Middlesbrough and Hartlepool at the mouth of the Tees, Seal Sands is a vital element of Teesside’s industrial landscape. Gaining its name from the large number of seals that lounged upon its banks, Seal Sands is tucked in neatly next to North Tees and is home to large multi-national process sector companies, central to the region’s prosperity. But with the skyline at Seal Sands not appearing as it does today until the 1960’s, what went before it?

Over a 1000 years ago the Romans panned for salt at Greatham, and Seal Sands remained an important part of the salt industry during the medieval period. These ancient processes were a fore runner of the chemical process industries we operate now.  The grassy ash mounds that we see today were created as salt was extracted by large fires, which evaporated the sea water to crystallise the salt. However by the sixteenth century the salt industry on Teesside had been eclipsed by that of South Shields. During these times salt was so valuable that it is still recognized today by the fact we are all paid a salary!

By the mid eighteenth century the first “modern” chemical plant had been erected in the region, producing fertilizers, and in 1825 the first ever steam passenger train ran between Stockton and Darlington. The first serious reclamation of seal sands occurred in 1850 when the main channel of the mouth of the Tees was dredged building up the banks to assist the export of coal. By the 1850's trade had increased considerably along the river, due to the establishment of Middlesbrough and the growth of the region’s ironstone industry.
During the late 19th century Tees Conservancy Commission was set-up and a regular dredging programme was established to deepen the river. The Commission used this material to reclaim thousands of acres of land on both sides of the estuary by building miles of reclamation embankments proving an economical way of obtaining new land. The Commission also set about to make a safe harbour for the ships at the river estuary. Despite an initial scheme proposed in 1859, the measures weren’t approved until 1861 following an appalling storm in which fifty ships were wrecked near the mouth of the Tees with many lives lost. The harbor protection scheme went ahead and as a result of this the North and South Gares were constructed at the river estuary, the South Gare being completed in 1888 and the North in 1891.

1894 saw a boost to local industry with the establishment of the Greatham Salt and Brine Company and in 1903 the works were purchased by salt making company Cerebos. Cerebos later became renowned for inventing the Bisto gravy powder product. By 1900 1000 hectares had been reclaimed using steel works slag.  

During the First World War, Billingham was chosen as the site to produce synthetic ammonia for use in explosives. In 1917 Dorman Long was established, which later founded the Teesside Steelworks – the company responsible from many famous bridges around the globe.

By 1920, the iron and steel industries dominated Teesside. The rivers and ports were thriving and bustling with activity around the clock. The legacy of coal mining, shipbuilding and steel making would later provide Teesside with the background for the development of the soon to be extensive chemical industry largely owned by Brunner Mond which would soon become ICI.

During the 1930’s the Billingham site grew with the addition of the Polyethylene and Nylon plants and was closely followed by ICI’s purchase in 1940 of the land that Wilton site would soon sit upon. From 1955 another 1000 hectares of seal sands were reclaimed and by 1966 the Conoco Phillips refinery (originally P.I.P.) and the Ineos Acrylics Plant (originally Monsanto) had been built together with storage facilities.1962 saw significant development at Seal Sands, as ICI bought land to develop a new chemical plant. Rapid growth sprung from the creation of an oil refinery and an aromatics plant linking the site with Wilton.

The opening of Seal Sands Road and the connections to the A19 ensured a swift build up of chemical investment in the 1970s including the two hundred and twenty mile long EKOFISK oil pipeline, operated by ConocoPhillips at its terminus at Seal Sands. Located on a 307-acre site at Seal Sands, the Teesside Oil Terminal receives crude oil from the pipeline for processing, storage, and the fractionation of natural gas liquids into ethane, propane and butane. Today oil importing and exporting remains one of Teesside's most important industries utilising six jetties at Seal Sands.

1970 also saw Monsanto open a 234-acre fibre intermediates manufacturing site, which was acquired by BASF in 1985 and later sold to chemical giant Ineos. By this time only 142 hectares of tidal sands remained which is now a National Nature Reserve, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and a Site of International Importance for water birds.  With the help of INCA (Industry Nature Conservation Association) the development at Seal Sands has shown that industry and nature can develop hand in hand.

SEAL SANDS TODAY. In addition to ConocoPhillips and Ineos, Seal Sands is today home to a number of major chemical and energy firms.  Pharmaceutical company Fine Organics, acrylonitrile producer Ineos Nitriles, speciality chemical experts Vertellus and biofuels operator Harvest Energy, along with the bulk liquid storage terminals of Simon Storage and Vopak, reside there. Its latest resident, Epax Pharma, has recently acquired the state of the art former Lundbeck site, where it will manufacture Omega 3 products. Over 1,700 people are employed on Seal Sands by companies with an aggregate turnover of more than £900m each year.

By this time only 142 hectares of tidal sands remained which is now a National Nature Reserve, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and a Site of International Importance for water birds.  With the help of INCA (Industry Nature Conservation Association) the development at Seal Sands has shown that industry and nature can develop hand in hand
WILDLIFE & SEAL SANDS. Gaining its name from the 1000 plus seals that could be seen lounging on the sandbanks, the site provided a natural habitat for wading birds and mammals. Sadly, due to the results of heavy pollution and dredging, by the 1930’s the sight of a seal was very rare. By 1960 the Grey Seal had returned, followed by the rarer Common Seal in the 1980’s, and today around 100 seals can be found lounging on the sandbanks. 

Seal Sands has always been of international importance due to it being the only area of inter-tidal mud flats between Holy Island to the north and the Humber to the south. The mud flats at Seal Sands are areas where sedimentation has occurred due to the decreasing energy of the river Tees as it reaches its mouth, thus making it rich in organic content.

Despite the presence of industry and heavy traffic, the location provides a sense of isolation, with the security fences surrounding the works creating a place with little human disturbance, allowing birds and mammals to flourish.  Today the area is home to in excess of 30,000 ducks and waders during the colder months, with industry lighting allowing wading bird to feed around the clock.