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Spain averts toxic spill at nature park

shoreline
Acres of farmland along the banks of the river may have been destroyed by the toxic spill  
April 26, 1998
Web posted at: 10:22 a.m. EDT (1422 GMT)

MADRID, Spain (Reuters) -- Spanish authorities prevented a major ecological disaster on Sunday when they diverted a massive flow of toxic waste away from the Donana National Park, one of Europe's leading nature reserves.

Environment Minister Isabel Tocino said engineers succeeded in blocking off a river contaminated by a toxic spill of up to 5 million cubic meters from a waste reservoir that ruptured on Saturday at a mine near Seville in southern Spain.

"Fortunately, Donana has been saved," Tocino told national radio. "The contaminated waters will not reach the wetlands because all the systems that were put in place yesterday worked."

The containment wall of a holding pond at the Los Frailes mine, run by Canada's Boliden Ltd (BOLir.TO), burst along a 164-foot (50-meter) front, sending a wall of contaminated water rushing into the Guadiamar River and toward the park 60 km (37 miles) to the south.

tractor
A tractor moves dirt to block off the contaminated river  

Engineers scrambled to build makeshift dikes at the outskirts of the 75,000-hectare (185,000-acre) park -- a vast sanctuary of marshlands, forests and sand dunes -- to prevent the toxic water from entering the reserve.

The spill, which created a black stain on the surface of the Guadiamar stretching for at least a kilometer, was being diverted instead through man-made channels to the larger Guadalquivir River and then out to the Gulf of Cadiz.

Although the park appeared to be out of danger, authorities said that up to 10,000 hectares (25,000 acres) of farmland along the banks of the river may have been damaged by the spill, the toxic residue from zinc, lead, copper and silver mining operations.

Toxic waste spills into Spain's Donana National Park
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The mayors of seven towns along the Guadiamar warned citizens not to drink from ground wells. Sheep and cattle owners were told to keep livestock away from the river. Fishing was also expected to be affected. No casualties were reported.

Tocino, who toured the scene by helicopter, said emergency measures had ensured that the spill was being re-routed around the boundaries of the park.

water

"All floodgates between the wetlands and the Guadiamar were shut and barriers were reinforced at three points to channel the contaminated water away from the park," she told national radio.

Some experts worried, however, that the rising tide on Sunday afternoon could cause the spill to overflow the makeshift dikes into Donana's ecologically sensitive marshland.

The government and environmental groups, including Greenpeace, called the incident a serious environmental threat and demanded action against those responsible.

Boliden, in a statement on Saturday, said that work on reconstructing the dam had begun to avoid further discharges.

It added that no signs of instability had been detected in the dam before the breach. The company said initial inspections indicated the ground beneath the dike slipped, causing a huge breach in the containment wall.

The Guadiamar is the principal source of fresh water for the Donana park, which is home to more than 250 bird species and houses 40,000 migrating birds each year.

Copyright 1998 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.

 
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