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Toxic Spill Damages Spain Crops

April 28, 1998

SANLUCAR DE BARRAMEDA, Spain (AP) _ Volunteers began clearing away dead fish Tuesday from waters near a mine reservoir that burst and spewed metallic waste, ruining $79 million in crops and endangering wildlife.

The Andalucian regional government warned local authorities to monitor drinking water regularly for contamination. The toxic liquid spilled near a prized European nature reserve when a dike collapsed Saturday in Aznalcollar, 250 miles southwest of Madrid.

Though the waste was diverted from the reserve, contaminated mud still threatens the 6 million migratory birds who flock each year to its salt marshes, as well as lynx, otters, eagles and other wildlife who live there.

Fearing that birds would eat the contaminated dead fish, volunteers fanned out to gather them up. Environmental activists joined the cleanup, arriving in a Greenpeace boat under a banner that depicted a gasping fish.

Fishermen waited gloomily at the docks in Sanlucar de Barrameda, a tourism and fishing village on the Atlantic Coast.

``Nothing has ever happened like this here. It could be our ruin,″ said Juan Maria Lopez, 49, as he stood in a light drizzle and stared across the river toward the thick, green forest of the Donana Park reserve.

Lopez said the perils of the Atlantic Ocean were nothing compared to the approaching toxic waste.

In Sanlucar, fishing has been a family affair for generations, with everyone from 10-year-old children to 65-year-old grandfathers working on individually owned boats.

Anders Bulow, president of Boliden Ltd., the Canada-based company that owns the mine, toured the area Tuesday.

The Confederation of Farmers and Livestock Organizations, which represents 200,000 farm owners in Spain, on Tuesday estimated initial losses at $79 million, mostly from rice, cotton and vegetables.

It said 13,300 acres of cropland will be left barren for 25 years because of the spill.

``It’s not only an ecological disaster, it’s a big social disaster as it affects people and their sustenance,″ confederation spokesman Jesus Larena said.

He said the group would seek compensation for its members from the government and was considering legal action against the mine operator. He did not say how many farmers were affected.

Makeshift dikes diverted the 176 million cubic feet of waste away from the Donana Park reserve and toward the Guadalquivir River, which flows into the Atlantic Ocean about 60 miles downstream at Sanlucar.

The waste contains residues of cadmium, zinc and other metals.

Environment Minister Isabel Tocino said she expected ``enormous″ ecological and agricultural damage. She said the park was safe.

The Andalucia provincial environmental office insisted Tuesday there was no evidence of contamination in the waters of the Guadalquivir. It was unclear how it reached that conclusion.

But Ricardo Aguilar, one of the Greenpeace activists, said Tuesday: ``Of course it’s going to get to the sea, the question is, in what quantity and how much damage it will cause. It’s a very big spill that could provoke damage for many years.″

Boliden said a sliding layer of ground beneath the reservoir had caused its walls to break. It said the reservoir had been repaired and that its copper, lead and zinc mining operations had been temporarily suspended.

A company statement said the dike has been inspected regularly in recent years and showed no signs of instability.

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