Spanish disaster mine liability unresolved

Responsibility for Los Frailes mine spillage disaster still not established nearly two years on

Almost two years after a massive spillage of tailings from a pyrites mine lagoon at Aznalcollar, Spain, which damaged the environmentally-sensitive Doñana region, liability for the estimated euros 180-300m (SPtas30-50bn) cost of the disaster has yet to be established. The experience demonstrates the scale of the challenge facing the EU following its pledge to tighten up on mine safety and liability after January's Baia Mare mine spill in Romania (ENDS Daily 18 February).

Spanish national and regional authorities as well as environmental NGOs have made a series of legal claims against the Aznalcollar mine operator, Swedish multinational Boliden Apirsa. These include demands for what a Spanish environment ministry spokesperson described as "unquantifiable" costs for environmental damage.

According to the Andalucian government, euros 180m of public money, including euros 54m of EU funds already spent, will have been committed when compensation payments and clean-up and reforestation operations in the affected area are completed.

A Boliden Apirsa spokesman told ENDS Daily that the company had spent euros 42m on repairing damage to the mine, restoring the area around the mine and paying compensation to affected farmers. Boliden president Anders Bülow was quoted last year as saying that the company "intends to recoup the money it has paid up to now because our involvement in the clean-up operations does not mean that we accept legal responsibility".

When Andalucia gave permission to restart mining operations at Aznalcollar (ENDS Daily 29 March 1999) environmental organisations objected that mining waste stored at the site, about which warnings had been ignored before the 1998 accident, continued to represent a hazard and that toxic material was still leaking. Spanish and Andalucian authorities have also been criticised for not withholding from Boliden euros 3.9m in public subsidies which objectors argue would be better spent on restoring the environment.

An environment ministry spokesperson insisted that there was a positive side to the Aznalcollar disaster in that "Spain now has valuable experience to share" in coping with future mine-spill accidents.

Follow Up:
Spanish environment ministry, tel: +34 91 597 6030; Andalucian environment department, tel: +34 955 003 000; Boliden Apirsa, tel: +34 91 564 4003.

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