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Denmark to dig up and incinerate millions of culled mink over pollution fears

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By David Walsh
Heavy machinery is used by members of Danish health authorities, assisted by members of the Danish Armed Forces in disposing of dead mink.
Heavy machinery is used by members of Danish health authorities, assisted by members of the Danish Armed Forces in disposing of dead mink.   -   Copyright  Morten Stricker/Ritzau Scanpix via AP
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Denmark will dig up millions of mink culled over fears of a coronavirus mutation to avoid a future environmental disaster, the Danish government confirmed.

Some four million mink will be exhumed from mass graves and incinerated to prevent potentially hazardous pollution.

The Social Democrat minority government reached an agreement with other parties in the Danish parliament to have the mink exhumed and disposed of at local waste incinerators, ministry officials confirmed in a statement on Sunday.

It is set to take place in May when the potential risk of COVID-19 infection from the dead animals will have passed.

"Six months sounds like a long time, and I would have liked to have seen it go even faster, but it is clearly the safest solution, as we avoid staff being exposed to infection during excavation and at the same time avoid the dead and infected mink being transported over greater distances," Rasmus Prehn, Minister of Food, Agriculture, and Fisheries, said in the statement released by the ministry.

The move comes as the bodies of the buried animals have begun to resurface because of the gases produced as they decay.

In November, the Danish government controversially ordered the slaughter of the country's entire mink population after a mutated strain of coronavirus was detected, decimating the EU's largest fur industry overnight.

Denmark breeds mink for their fur with Danish pelts prized around the world for their quality. The industry employs 6,000 Danes and is worth over half a billion euros in exports annually.

Over 15.4 million have been killed so far since November 4.

Samples of the mutation taken from one farm cluster were found to be resistant to antibodies, sparking fears that vaccines would be ineffective against it.

Following the cull, four million of the dead animals were hastily buried in trenches on military land near Holstebro and Karup in western Denmark.

The choice of burial sites near a bathing lake and a drinking water source has caused alarm with local residents raising concerns over contamination.

"The Danish Environmental Protection Agency is constantly monitoring the situation, and the agency is already conducting investigations to initiate remedial measures so that damage to the environment and groundwater is minimised," officials said.

The first transmission of the coronavirus mutation was detected in farmworkers on mink farms in the Netherlands in April. Since then, cases of infections from minks to humans have been reported at farms in Denmark, France, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Poland, and Lithuania.

The cull in Denmark caused a polemic after a government minister admitted there was no legal basis for the action.

Agriculture minister Mogens Jensen stood down on November 18 after making the admission while the opposition also called for the resignation of prime minister Mette Frederiksen.

Following a visit to a family-run mink farm in Kolding in central Denmark, which was devastated by the cull, Frederiksen made a tearful apology for her government's handling of the crisis.

The Danish parliament on Monday passed a bill that provided a legal basis for future culls, a temporary ban on the reintroduction of mink to the country as well as compensation for farmers who have lost their herds and livelihoods.

In a tweet posted following the vote, Pegn said: "The Danish mink breeders have sacrificed their life's work for the common good. We owe them a big thank you. Thus, it is very gratifying that L77 has now been adopted so that there can be clarity about bonuses and replacements!"