"Race against time" to save Doñana park

Political disputes blocking EU funds for Spanish toxic mine spill clean-up, say environmentalists

A "race against time" is on to clean-up the toxic sludge threatening Spain's Doñana national park before the autumn rains, environmental groups said today. At a press conference in London today marking 100 days since the leak of huge amounts of toxic mud and liquids from a mining waste reservoir (ENDS Daily 27 April), Spanish and UK NGOs combined to give a gloomy assessment of the park's future.

The Spanish bird conservation group (SEO) and its UK counterpart the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds claim the clean-up rate is too slow to divert a "catastrophe for wildlife" when heavy rains arrive. These are expected to force toxic sludge back over temporarily erected barriers to affect greater areas of the national park. The groups point out that the 6m migratory birds who visit the site annually have already started to arrive, and say that analysis of vegetation has shown that toxic metals are entering the food chain.

Official reports state that 15% - around 900 hectares - of the area covered by the sludge has been cleaned up. In contrast to the NGOs' assessment, the government maintains that work is being carried out at an adequate rate. President José María Aznar has assured the national press that the threat will be removed before the rains start.

But NGOs say the clean-up operation is being "delayed by politics and bureaucracy". Regional and national authorities are in dispute over responsibility as well as the best way to proceed. The national government favours isolating the national park by extending and raising the dam already in place, whereas the local Andalucian government wants to build a number of smaller sediment traps along the river.

In particular, according to the NGOs, the release of much-needed emergency funds from the EU to help with the clean-up is being delayed because local and national authorities cannot agree on a common action plan.

SEO and the RSPB are pushing for the creation of a single management body to supervise the clean-up, and the proposal of a long-term action plan to recover and restore habitats and aquatic systems. They want compulsory purchase of highly contaminated land by the authorities using EU cohesion funds, and the long-term monitoring of changes in soil quality as well as agricultural and fishing produce from the area.

The Aznacollár mine involved in the incident has been temporarily suspended from use. Legal investigation in Spain continues to determine the liability of the mine's owner, Boliden, as well as that of the regional and national authorities.

Follow Up:
RSPB, tel: +44 1767 681 577; Spanish environment ministry, tel: +34 91 597 6710; Andalucian environment ministry, tel: +34 95 448 0216.

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