the 25th April 1998, a spill equivalent to 500 Exxon-Valdez
tankers leaked from a waste settlement lagoon at the Apirsa
mine near Saville. Spilling into the Guadiamar River, it
eventually reached one of Europe's premier wildlife sites
- the Donana National Park in southern Spain. Upto 6.7 million
cubic yards of highly toxic sludge spilled from the lagoon.
Comprising extremely high levels of lead, mercury and cadmium,
almost all wildlife coming into contact with the spill died.
The waters were so acidic people, who tried to rescue animals
and pets, needed hospital treatment for burns.
impact of the spill cannot be underestimated as Miguel Ferer,
director of Donana's Biological Station, said, 'The Donana
Park of the next 30 years will be radically different from
that of four days ago'
This view was further reinforced by John Prescott, British
Deputy Prime Minister, during a visit on 5th June 1998,
World Environment Day, when he said, 'We must not underestimate
the significance of the Donana disaster. This area is not
just important in Spanish national terms it is a major European
site and we need to view it as such.'
The Secretary General of World Wide Fund for Nature,
Juan Carlos del Olmo was quoted as saying, ' The consequences
of this environmental disaster are immeasurable.'
sand dunes and marshes of the Guadalquivir estuary which
make up the Donana National Park are the home to: 361 species
of birds (119 species regularly nest there), 29 species
of mammals, 19 species of reptiles and 12 species of amphibians.
Significantly important species found here include the Mediterranean
lynx and the Spanish Imperial Eagle. It is one of Europe's
largest protected areas and designated as a Natura 2000
site and a RAMSAR World Heritage Site. Over 6 million migratory
birds are estimated to visit this site each year, as it
is one of the most important stop overs on the Arctic-Africa
migration route. The importance of this site for a number
of species is demonstrated by the interest shown in it by
the World Wide Fund for Nature. Active in campaigning to
prevent development of the site since 1959, the WWF have
initiated a legal inquiry into the spill and previous spills
from the mine.
what went wrong. How did one of Europe's most important
wildlife sites suffer almost irreparable damage?
The initial claim by
Boliden Ltd, the mine owners, that it was an accident and
an act of God is increasingly being questioned. As far back
as June 1996 a report by Geocisa warns of a weakening of
the dam due to slippage of the foundations. Swedish consultants,
Golder Associates, also warned of seepage from the tailings
lagoon. As evidence mounted, Boliden Ltd finally admitted
on the 26th February 1999 that the dam was badly designed,
although it blames its contractors and advisers for the
incorrect interpretation of the geological data. The underlying
geology of the site consists of marls; clay containing micrite,
a carbonate mineral. The current belief is that the foundation
failure occurred because of attack from acidic water and
the swelling of clay minerals. Rafael Baena Escudero of
the Department of Physical Geography and Regional Geographic
Analysis summed up the consequences: 'In this case, a
complete lack of foresight emerged. The dam was built on
top of expansive clays. Within these clays, deformations
have occurred, which were propagated to the soil, readjusting
the blocks whenever a movement occurred. In this sense,
the seepage through the marls has the effect that these
layers, the phylosilicates, swell and expand their volume.
The opposite happens when they dry out and force the shrinking
of the clay. This movement of expansion/contraction is constant
and should have been accounted for. Especially, after the
inclinometers had become deformed: something was moving.
- This is a matter of general negligence and not a problem
activities in the area by the mining company are also thought
to have played a role in the breach of the dam. Locally,
blasting was being undertaken and it is also thought that
the lagoons were operating at a higher level than they were
designed for, so adding extra strain onto the foundations.
The threats to the park are not yet over though. Boliden
Ltd on 7th April 1999 warned that due to further displacements
of upto 14 centimetres, there is a real risk of another
breach. The inquiry judge had previously refused Boliden
to undertake stabilisation work in case it hindered the
investigation. Despite this risk of another breach the company
recommenced mining activity on 6th April 1999.
consequences of this spill are not known. Many of the metals
found in the spillage where highly toxic: cadmium, lead
and mercury for instance. Zinc was also released in high
quantities; estimated loss of 120,000 tones that compares
with the mine annual output of zinc of 125,000 tons. Financially
the cost of clean up of this spill has been put between
$100 and $200 million. A cost so great that the Spanish
government is making a claim against the parent companies
of Boliden, Canadian Boliden Ltd. and Swedish Trelleborg
AB, in case the Spanish company is placed into receivership.
But from a wildlife point of view, we can only sit and wait
to see the impacts. It is thought that the clean up operation
could take upto a decade and still leave highly contaminated
soil. Even with most of the metals cleaned away, the pollutants
involved can bioaccumulate and magnify along the food chain
over a number of years. Indeed the first evidence of impact
on migratory birds seems to be showing itself. Greylag geese,
overwintering last year at Donana, may be suffering cadmium
and lead poisoning with upto 10 per cent in imminent danger
from the mine is still entering the Guadiamar River at a
rate of 86,400 liters of acidic water per day according
to the Environmental Ministry of Andalusia. Much is coming
from the contaminated subsoil as a result of the tailing
dam. And this is one of the biggest problems in cleaning
up after the spill. Such a vast amount of contamination
was caused both of the soil and possibly the groundwater,
trying to recover all the waste is impossible and movement
of the pollutants will continue within the area for many
decades and indeed movement will happen every time it rains
or the wind blows.