A decade after Doñana's disaster

25th March 2008, Comments 0 comments

Protected wetland is still under threat 10 years after a huge toxic mining spill

25 March 2008

MADRID - A decade on, the only evidence that the Coto Doñana national park was the site of Europe's worst toxic spill is a cordoned-off strip of land covered in a five-centimetre crust of lead-coloured mud that is entirely void of vegetation.

On 25 April 1998, the wall of the tailings pool of the Los Frailes mine in Aznalcóllar, run by Swedish-Canadian company Boliden Apirsa, broke. Within hours, six million tonnes of toxic mud containing cadmium, lead, zinc and mercury poured into the Guadiamar river, which in turn feeds into the waters of the Doñana national park, Europe's largest area of wetland and a World Heritage Site. The effect was catastrophic. All life was destroyed along a 40-kilometre stretch of the river, including 37 tonnes of fish.

To put the disaster in context, environmentalists say the amount of toxic waste soaked up in an area covering 4,600 square hectares was 1,000 times that of the 63,000 tonnes of oil that hit Galicia's coastline in 2002, when the Prestige tanker sank. It took seven months just to remove the waste that had settled on the surface, and regional and local governments spent EUR 100 million on the purchasing of affected land in order to clean it up.

In 2000, a Spanish judge ruled that Boliden had no criminal responsibility for the disaster. A year before, Boliden had announced it intended to resume mining activities at Los Frailes. But in October 2000 the company went broke, scrapping its plans. In September 2001, Boliden closed the Los Frailes mine and 425 employees were let go.

In the meantime, three dams were built to stop the slick from spreading into the national park. For more than two years, bulldozers and trucks razed the surface of the land, ferrying their deadly load back to the mine at Aznalcollar. Two regeneration programmes were set then up: the Guadiamar Green Corridor, and Doñana 2005.

"Imperial eagles have been spotted, and the lynx has also returned to the area around Aznalcázar," says José María Arenas, who was involved in setting up the Green Corridor.

The Boliden disaster has highlighted Doñana's extreme vulnerability. In spite of its undisputed ecological importance, the park is still under pressure as tourism and agriculture eat into it.

Fernando Hiraldo, the head of the Doñana Biology Station, says the Green Corridor has recovered because pressure from agriculture and mining has been lifted, allowing a gradual cleansing process.

"Pollution levels have dropped below those even before the spill, because there is no mining here any more," says Hiraldo. "But we have to be very careful, because the soil in the wetlands is incredibly porous, and easily absorbs residues from farming," he adds.

[Copyright El Pais / JAVIER RICO 2008]

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