Exposed: On the day of the Bečva River poisoning, Babiš’s Deza plant had an accident. Why did it remain a secret?

Jakub Patočka, Zuzana Vlasatá

DEZA, Mr. Babiš’s chemical plant, claims that no accident had been reported on the day of the poisoning of river Bečva. Our evidence proves otherwise. Moreover, number of leads suggest that cyanide was not the main cause of the poisoning.

One small part of Deza—a chemical corporation owned by Czech Prime Minister Babiš. And somewhere within it lies an entirely marginal operation that may have poisoned the Bečva. Photo: Deník Referendum

Over two months have passed since one of the greatest environmental catastrophes in the history of the Czech Republic: a poisoning incident that decimated the rich aquatic life along forty kilometers of the Bečva River. And the police have yet to find the perpetrator. Precisely a month ago, Deník Referendum ran an investigation showing why it is impossible for the poisoning to have originated from the sixteen-kilometer canal leading out of the industrial zone at the former Tesla plant in Rožnov pod Radhoštěm. The police pointed to precisely this possible cause on September 26th: six days after the accident.

On the contrary, our findings regarding the course of events showed that the most likely culprit is the Deza chemical plant, part of the Agrofert holding company owned by Prime Minister Andrej Babiš. However, Agrofert spokesman Karel Hanzelka has repeatedly and categorically stated that Deza “is not the cause of this environmental catastrophe.” Hanzelka has stated: “We have not registered any leaks of dangerous substances.” The head of Deza’s environment department, Jaroslav Obermayer, explained the same in a paid advertising interview in the newspaper MF Dnes.

Now, thanks to unique testimony from past and present employees of this chemical factory, Deník Referendum has learned that Agrofert is not speaking truthfully. On the contrary, an accident at one of Deza’s operations preceded the poisoning on the Bečva. And as the employee who caused the accident has confirmed for us, there is evidence for everything.

He has been fined two and a half thousand crowns for his offense. Deník Referendum has consulted the matter in full with several experts, Czech and international, who all agree that the given accident was capable of having poisoned the river to this extent.

Why did Agrofert cover up the accident? And what happened on that fateful night?

Since Thursday, September 24th, the poisoning incident on Sunday the 20th has been spoken of as a cyanide poisoning. However, Deník Referendum has inferred from responses by several laboratories and other institutions that cyanide was either not the main cause, or not the sole cause, of the poisoning in the Bečva—or may not have been the cause at all.

This is a fundamental turn of events in the whole affair. And we will return to these details to explain them in full, But first a few words about what happened at Deza.

An accident at Deza preceded the Bečva poisoning by mere hours

This accident occurred in the pre-dawn hours of September 20th, in the phenols operation—in a facility called a caustification unit. The phenols operation is the newest one in all of Deza; it has been running since 1994. The caustification process is used to produce lye, which Deza uses—as specified in a 2018 bachelor’s thesis by Jakub Kučera of the University of Pardubice—for “extracting phenol from carbolic oil, which is one of the fractions produced during the distillation of black coal tar.”

Caustification is an outdated method, and by all accounts Deza would not even be able to acquire a permit to engage in it today. This Babiš-owned chemical factory uses it because it is advantageous for them to process sodium carbonate in this way. This chemical is produced as one of the waste materials during phenol extraction. Meanwhile, Deza consumes too little lye for an investment into introducing the more modern electrolyte-based production method to pay off.

The caustification unit is run by a single operator. This is relatively undemanding labor; the workers speak of it as a “piece of cake.” The unit overall comprises two reactors and alternates between two processes: lye is “cooked” in the reactors and is then filtered off for further use and sent to reservoirs at the phenols operation.

The accident occurred before dawn on September 20th in the part of the factory where phenols are produced. Photo: Deník Referendum

The process is as follows: The caustification operator sends a command to the phenols operation, from which eighteen cubic meters of sodium carbonate travels from hopper H717 through pipe P706 into the reactor. The operator then adds six cubic meters of water and heats the mixture to 90 degrees. Next, a total of three cubic meters of slaked lime is added to it, and the desired product—concentrated lye solution—is then acquired from the resulting mixture by filtering away undissolved sodium carbonate.

Described like this, it can seem like a relatively harmless chemical reaction. After all, we all use both lye and sodium carbonate in our homes regularly. But the “soda” used for caustification at Deza is a waste material that, we must stress, is created directly at this chemical factory. It is not the pure white “baking powder” we all know, but a reeking black liquid that, besides sodium carbonate, also contains other toxic chemicals. Similarly, the water used throughout the process is “water from production” that can contain various residual substances.

On that fateful night, the operator at the caustification plant triggered the heating of this toxic mix at some point before midnight. Then, however, he fell asleep. The mixture overheated and began to churn. The reactor also contains mixing equipment. The mixing and the rapid boiling led to the mix spraying intensely from the reactor.

The mixing and the rapid boiling led to the mix spraying intensely from the reactor. Photo: Deník Referendum

The caustification unit is supposed to have an alarm for such situations. However, as multiple sources have confirmed for us, that alarm has long been out of operation. The reactor should also have a stopper. But the stopper, for a change, has been raised and supported with a wooden plank. This was done because the gas-drainage plunger on the stopper had been clogging up too often.

And last but not least, an emergency tank directly beneath the caustification unit is there for catching leaks caused by accidents—this tank is also ringed by a concrete curbing meant to prevent any substances that might leak out of the unit from going where they should not. That is, into the rainwater drainage system.

Zooming in on a picture of the caustification unit confirms... Photo: Deník Referendum
...that the stopper really is propped up with a plank. Photo: Deník Referendum

On the night of September 20th, after the caustification operator had fallen asleep, all the safety measures failed. The seething toxic cocktail sprayed out to a distance of up to several meters past the emergency tank’s curbing—directly onto the road in front of the caustification unit, and here it all dripped down into two adjacent apertures of the rainwater drainage system. The instruments recording “trends in production”—i.e. the statuses of the hopper, lye, and reactor—showed that a total of twelve cubic meters of the mixture escaped during the accident.

The worker during whose shift the accident happened has confirmed the accident, including a number of details, for Deník Referendum. However, we have decided not to publish his name. We do not believe that the fault for the accident, and especially for its cover-up, lies with him, and therefore we believe that the public’s attention should be focused on the real culprits.

What did the killing?

Could the caustification mixture that leaked into the rainwater drainage truly have poisoned forty kilometers of the Bečva? Could it have made it through the drainage into the river? The short answer to both questions is: yes.

According to our investigation, Deza’s water management department was not informed of the accident immediately. Every one out of a number of the plant’s employees with whom we spoke while working on this report described how a culture of covering up problems reigns at Deza—none of them wish to risk penalties, or worse yet the closure of the entire factory. They all want to avoid sanctions and losses for the enterprise.

In any event, it was not until the morning shift at the phenol operation—nicknamed the “stink operation”—arrived that the accident’s impacts were cleaned-up, by spraying them on into the rainwater drainage with a hose. The accident clean-up “climaxed” with pouring sawdust over the rainwater drainage’s perimeter, as documented in photographs. “It was entirely useless, but it was likely meant to give any passersby the feeling that things were under control,” commented one of our informants, who wishes to remain anonymous.

“It was entirely useless, but it was probably meant to give any passersby the feeling that things were under control,” commented one of our informants, who wishes to remain anonymous. Photo: Deník Referendum

Deník Referendum has managed to acquire a sample of the “soda,” that is, the substance that leaked into the drainage and that is used during caustification at Deza. Associate professor Marek Petřívalský from Palacký University Olomouc has brought us initial, rough analysis results; Petřivalský has published several articles about the circumstances of the Bečva poisoning, in Deník Referendum and other places.

His analysis confirms that the toxic mixture contained a quantity of a critical substance that could, if other conditions are also met, lead to poisoning of the extent that was seen on the Bečva. But surprisingly, that key substance is not cyanides, but phenols. The entire nation has been asking for two months: from where did cyanides leak into the Bečva? So is it truly possible that an innocent mistake was made in the identification of the poisoning’s key cause?

Fishermen’s testimonies from the first days do not support cyanide poisoning

Deník Referendum’s team of reporters dove into the media archives and performed an additional review of the authentic testimonies by the event’s direct witnesses, and spoke with a number of them again. Because—as far as the poisoning’s cause is concerned—their testimonies raised doubts about cyanide right from the start.

Deník Referendum has managed to acquire a sample of the “soda,” that is, the substance that leaked into the drainage and that is used during caustification at Deza. Photo: Jakub Patočka, Deník Referendum

From the first day, fishermen from the most strongly affected sections have been describing how the fish were dying in convulsions and had damaged nervous systems: that they kept spinning on their axes, jumping out of the water, running up to the shore... “Those fish were suffering,” sounded repeatedly from the fishermen who were at the scene of the event.

But these symptoms do not correspond with cyanide poisoning. That causes fish to fall into a slow agony instead. The toxicology literature even describes cases in which fish recover from cyanide spills after they reach clean water. This type of situation occurred in former Czechoslovakia on the Svitava River during a cyanide leak from the Adamov machine works in the 1980s.

There are even descriptions of how poachers on coral reefs use cyanide to hunt aquarium fish. They transfer the dazed fish to clean water, and a large majority of them recover.

Fishermen also describe how their hands burned, itched, and turned pale, and how they blew blood from their noses due to irritation of their nasal mucosa. They further mention how the fish had corroded or bleeding gills. Meanwhile not one of them mentions the cherry-colored gills that are typical for fish poisoned by cyanide. “I think some voodoo cocktail killed those fish,” concludes Rostislav Trybuček, director of the Czech Anglers Union.

And ultimately... the literature describes cyanide as having an odor of bitter almonds. But no-one near the events smelled such an odor. Meanwhile, both rescue workers and fishermen speak of a disinfectant or chlorine odor.

The However, there is another possible explanation for the “odor of disinfectant.” The medical literature describes the odor of phenol as a “hospital scent.”chlorine odor had a logical explanation, and we have pointed it out in our previous texts. It is that chlorine is used for neutralizing cyanides. We thus deducted that the culprit in the presumed cyanide accident was covering their tracks. In this case, it could theoretically be the use of a sodium hypochlorite such as is present in certain household cleaning products.

Many state institutions also cast doubt on cyanides

The State Veterinary Institute in Olomouc has not confirmed the death of the fish from cyanide either. It received its first fish for analysis back on Sunday, September 20th. “We were only able to determine whether the fish died of poisoning, or infection. To unambiguously identify what poisoned the fish, a specific poison must be established in the fish or the water at more than its maximum safe level,” the institute’s director Jan Bardoň told Deník Referendum.

Seventy-one days after the accident, the only institution that has published any specific data from any measurement at all is Deník Referendum. Photo: Marek Petřivalský

He also confirmed that the institute received two water samples along with an instruction to focus on the presence of cyanides. One of them was positive and thus did contain cyanides. We did not, however, learn at what concentration. It could very well have been an amount that did not exceed the allowed limits. The second sample was negative.

According to Rostislav Trybuček, regional director of the Czech Anglers Union, the Research Institute of Fish Culture and Hydrobiology at South Bohemian University in Vodňany also studied the poisoned fish. “They approached us on their own, because they are the leading experts in this area and were surprised that the Czech Environmental Inspectorate had not asked for their cooperation directly,” Trybuček told Deník Referendum.

Trybuček also noted: “To the best of my knowledge, the criminal police are working with their findings now, and consider them to be of fundamental importance. However, because of this, we as the party ordering the research have not gained access to any results from the analysis.” Deník Referendum has learned that cyanides were not confirmed in Vodňany either, or at least not as the sole cause of the poisoning.

Fish were also analyzed by University of Veterinary and Pharmaceutical Sciences Brno. “We didn’t receive the samples until the Wednesday after the accident. That’s very late. We were not able to confirm cyanide poisoning from them,” Miroslava Palíková, who analyzed the fish, told Deník Referendum. She as well confirms that the specific cause of the poisoning could be determined through analyses of the other samples: of water or sediment and of river-bottom fauna: “benthos.” But—as we wrote a month ago—the authorities have inexplicably omitted benthos analysis.

In connection with the restocking of the poisoned segment of the river, scientists from the Brno-based Institute of Vertebrate Biology are monitoring it for the Czech Anglers Union. Deník Referendum has access to their analysis made on the basis of a sampling of fish and benthos in the affected river segment on Friday, September 25th.

The analysis shows that one of the surviving fish, specifically a barbel that the scientists found in the mentioned segment, had a strongly corroded spine. “Cyanide could not have done that,” commented the author of the analysis, Pavel Jurajda, for Deník Referendum. “Barbels are fish from the river bottom,” assistant professor Palíková explains. The fish could thus theoretically have been immersed in river sediment, with the toxic substance only having damaged its spine, which was sticking out.

However, there is one more argument, and in fact the most important one, that casts doubt on the entire official version of the poisoning: no responsible institution to this day has published what cyanide concentration it has measured, and where. Meanwhile the Police of the Czech Republic have clearly stated that there is nothing preventing anyone from doing so.

Could the caustification leak have poisoned the river?

What, then, was revealed by the initial analysis of the sample of “soda” from the caustification plant, performed by Marek Petřivalský? In light of the facts above, as well as the fact that the facility is part of a phenols operation, we wanted to verify if the “soda” contains phenols. And that was confirmed.

Their concentration within the sample is in the range from 110 to 120 milligrams per liter. “Please take this as information for orientation only; I ran it in a hurry using the simplest method,” warns Marek Petřivalský.

Testing of the sample acquired by DR, Photo: Marek Petřivalský

Would this be enough to poison dozens of kilometers of the Bečva? It’s not impossible, but the matter is of course more complicated than it may appear. As noted in the academic literature, there are many kinds of phenols, and their toxicity can vary by up to four orders of magnitude—while for a simple phenol, the toxicity limit for fish ranges from single milligrams to dozens of milligrams per liter, for its derivatives, such as chlorinated phenols, a few dozen micrograms per liter are enough to spread death in a river.

A hydrologist who previously worked for the water management company Povodí Moravy, and British scientists cooperating with Greenpeace International as consultants on toxic pollution cases, have each independently calculated the dynamic model of phenol dissemination for the given concentration. Their model implies that the phenols contained in the Deza “soda” in the river would indeed be able to spread death—but that it would also depend on further circumstances.

To speak with certainty, a much more detailed analysis of their composition must be performed. And there is also the need to know in what precise manner it may have entered the river.

Marek Petřivalský sees several possible variants for the poisoning: “I think that the simultaneous action of multiple poisons may have played a role in the poisoning. Besides phenols, the mixture that leaked from the caustification plant may contain other toxic substances extracted during tar processing. It is also possible that the strongly alkaline ‘soda’ mixture from the caustification plant released other toxic substances into the river as it flowed through the drainage network in the Deza complex.” “For any further considerations, it would be of key importance to know through precisely which route it made its way into the river,” he adds.

What route did the poisons take to the river?

Since its very start, the Bečva catastrophe has been an equation with many unknowns. With the accident in the caustification unit made clear, we can have one less unknown. But how might the toxic “soda” have reached the river? Might it have even mixed with yet another substance along the way? And what could have caused the delay of several hours?

The caustification mixture boiled over at around two a.m. The fish in the river did not begin dying until eleven a.m. What happened in the meantime?

Ground plan of the water management system at the former Urxové závody complex (which is Deza today). Photo: Jakub Patočka, Deník Referendum

According to its integrated pollution permit, Deza leads its rainwater drainage into one of its lagoons; these are located between the chemical plant and the shore of the Bečva, on the municipal territory of the village of Lešná: “The left half of the lagoon is intended for collecting rainwater and rinsing water released from the factory, which serve as a source of utility water.” Fish live in this lagoon. And after the accident, according to information verified with Deza employee and union member Jakub Matocha, live fish were present in the lagoon.

This leads to a logical conclusion: the caustification mixture did not reach the lagoon—it is hard to imagine that all the fish in the lagoon would stay alive. “One possible variant is that some branch of the rainwater drainage system was connected, via the system that originally led into the Lhotka lagoon, into a new branch that, just like the leak from the plant, evades the lagoon—then it would run straight into the Bečva and bypass the cleaning system,” offers Petřivalský as one possible explanation.

Deník Referendum has procured all the passages in the Vsetín District Archive concerning the rainwater drainage system in the project documentation for the former Urxové závody complex (which is Deza today) in 1982, and a number of other ground plans. We similarly have access to the design and to records from monitoring of the current state of the drainage system in Lhotka nad Bečvou. Despite our best efforts, however, we are not currently able to confirm the hypothesis that a portion of the rainwater drainage from Deza leads outside of the lagoon, or that it is even connected to one of the branches of the rainwater drainage system in Lhotka.

Deník Referendum has procured all of the passages concerning rainwater drainage in the project documentation from the final-inspection proceedings at the former Urxové závody complex (which is Deza today). Photo: Jakub Patočka, Deník Referendum

No matter what route the toxic mix took into the Bečva, it still may be shown that the composition of the caustification mixture corresponds to what was found in the tissues of the fish killed during the catastrophe. Deník Referendum has ordered precisely this analysis. And it additionally cannot be ruled out that the ongoing investigation by the Police of the Czech Republic will clear up some of the mysteries.

Who knew about the Deza accident and tried to cover it up?

The entire case reeks of involving another, even more serious and unjustifiable systemic failure than the Bečva poisoning itself. And that is a conscious effort to divert attention from the true source of the pollution and to thwart the police investigation.

How otherwise can it be explained that just one day after the accident, the Czech Environmental Inspectorate knew—and above all announced—that the culprit was not Deza, while it took an entire four days until cyanide was reported as the cause of the poisoning? How is it possible that it took another two days until fingers were pointed at the Rožnov canal? Meanwhile, today it is entirely evident—and according to Deník Referendum’s information, the police’s own investigation has shown the same—that the hypothesis about the Rožnov canal did not match reality.

All evidence suggests that the “Rožnov canal” version of events had just one comprehensible goal: to draw attention away from Deza. That would, however, be pointless if phenol, or a toxic cocktail containing phenol, were to have been registered as the main cause of the poisoning from the start. Does anyone know of any possible source at the given site other than Deza itself?

Why would one of the best research sites in the country, the Vodňany lab, have to call on its own for samples, and ultimately have to go all the way to fishermen to gain these samples through the back door? For what reason have practically all of the responsible institutions refused to this day to make public when and from where they took what samples, and what concentrations they measured in them—and of what? After all, the Police of the Czech Republic have themselves denied all claims that they had forbidden doing so.

And so we need to cut to the quick. What did the Deza management know about the accident, and about the possible impacts of the leaked mixture? What did they do to prevent damages? If they learned of the accident, did they share information about it with the police? Who? Above all Zbyněk Průša—Deza’s Chairman of the Board and Chairman of the Board at Andrej Babiš’s Agrofert in one.

What was known to the head of the Czech Environmental Inspectorate, Erik Geuss? What did the Minister of Environment Richard Brabec know? He is the second in the hierarchy of Babiš’s political party and he was himself a director of another chemical plant “Lovochemie” owned by Agrofert. And what about Prime Minister Andrej Babiš?

Let us recall here that the accident occurred two weeks before an important election. Deník Referendum’s counsel Antonín Továrek notes on this point: “From my point of view, the question here is not whether the Police of the Czech Republic should be searching the offices of the state institutions, but in how many of those it should be searching.”

This investigation is the product of teamwork by Deník Referendum’s investigative department. It was co-authored by Gaby Khazalová and Josef Patočka.

If you have any knowledge that could help to shed light on the poisoning of the Bečva, or other key information, you can send it to our secure email addresses:,