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Tuesday, 28 April, 1998, 00:46 GMT 01:46 UK
Toxic flood devastates Spanish farmland
dam300
Millions of gallons of toxic water leaked out of the dam
The Spanish authorities may have saved Europe's largest national park, the Dońona Park, from a huge spillage of highly toxic water, but thousands of farmers have seen their crops ruined.

On Saturday, unexpectedly high tides caused a 164-foot (50m) breach in a dam hastily-constructed to hold back toxic waste at the Los Frailes iron pyrite mine, run by Canada's Boliden Limited.

Olive grove
Toxic liquid creeps toward an olive grove
The breach caused a wall of contaminated water to rush into the Guadiamar River towards the national park.

In a race against time, officials built dams around the 75,000 hectare park to try to stop the stream of poisonous spill.

Rare plants and wildlife were at risk of being destroyed by the concoction of zinc, lead and cadmium.

Rescue measures work

The Environment Minister Isabel Tocino, who visited the sight within hours of the spill, said engineers had succeeded in blocking off the river.

"Fortunately Dońana has been saved," she told national radio.

"The contaminated waters will not reach the wetlands because all the systems that were put in place yesterday worked."

Thousands of hectares of farmland have been poisoned
Thousands of hectares of farmland have been poisoned
But although the park has been saved, it is at the cost of hundreds of farms along the river.

Environment Minister Isabel Tocino admitted that an "ecological catastrophe" had still been visited on regional agriculture and ecosystems.

The regional government in Andalusia has set up a special crisis unit to monitor the situation.

The farming commune of Aznalcazar alone lost 3,500 hectares (8,645 acres) of fields growing rice, cotton and citrus fruit. Some 250 farmers and 500 day-jobbers were estimated to have "lost everything".

The fisheries industry has also been badly hit. "We wanted to save the birds, and ended up poisoning our own food," said Manuel Nunez, the chairman of the local fishing association.

According to a Greenpeace Spain spokeswoman, Eva Hernandez, herons and storks are feasting on hundreds of fish writhing in black sludge.

"One way or another, they will all be contaminated by highly-toxic products absorbed by the fish," she said.

The situation is especially serious as many of the birds are currently raising chicks, and the poisoning of fish stocks will remove a vital source of food.

The mayors of seven towns along the river have warned citizens not to drink from ground wells.

Outcry

Greenpeace have described the accident as a crime against nature and want the Spanish attorney general to take legal action against the foreign group that owns the mining company.

Environmentalists said that the Spanish authorities may have underestimated the true extent of the damage to the flora and fauna of Dońona and warned that seepage through the undersoil may yet have a catastrophic effect.

Environmental groups say they had warned before about a disaster waiting to happen, but were ignored. The mining company said no signs of instability had been detected in the dam before the breach.

Work was under way to reconstruct the dam to avoid further discharges, it said.

See also:

26 Apr 98 | Europe
Ecological disaster averted
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