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Controversy prompted as polluting Spanish copper mine re-opens

Published by MAC on 2015-02-26
Source: Guardian,

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Controversial Spanish mine to reopen

The Guardian

25 February 2015

Conservationists claim environmental concerns have been ignored in runup to regional elections in decision to reopen Aznalcóllar mine that caused one of Spain’s worst ecological disasters 17 years ago

A controversial mine which caused one of Spain’s biggest ever environmental disasters is set to reopen, the government has announced.

Los Frailes mine in Aznalcóllar, near Seville, will resume operations 17 years after a tailings dam burst, dumping five million cubic metres of toxic sludge into the Guadiamar river.

The spill narrowly avoided one of Europe’s most important wetlands and led to a €240m (£178m) cleanup operation.

The Andalucían regional government claims reopening the mine will create 450 jobs in an area with one of the highest unemployment rates in Spain.

But conservationists argue that environmental considerations have been ignored in the rush to make an announcement ahead of next month’s regional elections.

The contract has been awarded to a consortium headed by Grupo México, a company which was forced to pay $150m (£98m) in cleanup fees following an accident at its Buenavista mine in Mexico’s northwest Sonora state, last August.

Around 22,000 people were left without clean water after 42 million litres of sulphuric acid contaminated a 100-mile (160km) stretch of the Sonora river.

Spanish officials insist that Grupo México has guaranteed its Aznalcóllar mining activities will not affect protected zones and that the area will eventually be restored to its original state.

The construction of a new tailings dam and the accumulation of toxic residue will also be prohibited.

“Our team has worked tirelessly for more than a year to present the best project with the biggest environmental guarantees,” read a Grupo México-Minorbis statement.

“The project, designed to be a benchmark in global mining, analyses each environmental challenge and turns them into innovative solutions. Through a ‘bubble’ model of underground mining, impacts on the environment and landscape will be eliminated.”

But green groups are worried that environmental impact studies have been overlooked by socialist party PSOE, as it champions the economic benefits in a bid to win votes.

“Since [Andalucía president] Susana Díaz called an early election in January, politicians in the Ministry of Economics have pressured the technical committee into making a decision as quickly as possible, so that an announcement could be made during the election campaign,” said environmental group, Ecologists in Action.

“Ecologists in Action expresses its absolute mistrust of Grupo México and the electioneering politics of PSOE, based on false promises of employment without environmental guarantees.

“Once again, it shows that the Andalucían government has not learnt from the Aznalcóllar disaster in 1998.”

The 950-hectare mining concession has an estimated 80 million tonnes of extractable ore, containing copper, zinc and lead.

But it also contains toxic elements including arsenic which, according to Spain’s Senior Council for Scientific Research (CSIC), was responsible for contaminating soil and wildlife following the accident.

Among the casualties were 37 tonnes of dead fish and a legacy of dangerously high quantities of heavy metals in the liver and muscle tissue of species throughout the food chain.

The Guadiamar river acts as the main water source for Doñana national park, a Unesco world heritage site that could once again be put at risk.

“The reopening of Aznalcóllar is bad news, a black day for Andalusia’s environment,” said Juan José Carmona Moreno, head of WWF Spain’s Doñana programme.

“The Andalucían government has shown it has little environmental sensitivity and even less memory. We are seriously concerned that the management of residues and contaminated water left by the previous mine operator has been put in the hands of a company with a history of contamination.

“We will work to ensure that the mine does not become a threat once again to Doñana and the thousands of birds that come from across Europe to spend winters in this corner of Andalucía.”

Reopening of controversial Spanish copper mine sparks heated debate

Cecilia Jamasmie

26 February 2015

Seventeen years after one of Spain’s largest environmental catastrophes, a group of companies led by Grupo Mexico is resuming operations at Los Frailes zinc, copper and silver mine, in Aznalcollar, near Seville.

The operation, closed since a tailings dam burst in 1998 dumping five million cubic metres of toxic sludge into the nearby Guadiamar river, is expected to generate 450 new jobs in an area with the country's highest unemployment rates.

But, according to El Pais (in Spanish), conservationists and locals are not thrilled by the news. They claim the promised jobs won’t be able to offset the risks of reopening the mine. Besides, they add Grupo Mexico has a known and tainted environmental record, as one of its mine was responsible last year of a major spill that left 22,000 people without clean water in the state of Sonora.

The company, which was accused of lying about the causes of the accident, ended up paying $150m in cleanup fees.

Spanish officials insist that Grupo México has guaranteed its mining activities will not affect protected areas close to the mine. Opponents are worried that environmental impact studies have been overlooked and demand more proof the operation won’t affect the Guadiamar river, which is the primary water source for the Doñana national park, a Unesco world heritage site.

The 950-hectare mining concession has an estimated 80 million tonnes of extractable ore, containing copper, zinc and lead.

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