Activists seize toxic sludge

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GREENPEACE activists were involved in violent clashes with security guards yesterday when they took chemical samples from the mine-waste reservoir whose rupture and subsequent flood have put at risk the Coto Donana in southern Spain, Europe's largest nature reserve.

Scuffles broke out when the environmental pressure group decided on direct action at the giant multi-metals mine at Aznalcollar in Andalusia owned by the Swedish/Canadian mining multi-national Boliden Apirsa. The company's waste pond, a mile long and half a mile wide, burst its banks last weekend, sending 6 million cubic metres of highly polluted water and toxic sludge into the rivers Guadiamar and Guadalquivir and so on down towards the Coto Donana National Park, with its colonies of rare birds.

The pollution was diverted before it reached the park, but has contaminated much of the surrounding area. Greenpeace complained that the company will not give details of the sludge's precise toxicity and that the waste pond was still leaking into the adjacent river.

Yesterday the reservoir was invaded by the MV Greenpeace, the group's ship, which had sailed to Sanlucar De Barrameda, at the mouth of the Guadalquivir, to put the pollution under an international spotlight. Led by the ship's Swiss captain, Peter Schwarz, a dozen activists scaled the 100ft high walls of the waste pond and ran down to its now empty floor, scooping up sludge samples for chemical analysis.

Guards converged on them and in the scuffles that followed, the activists claimed, stones were thrown, a camera smashed and Greenpeace members threatened with a gun. One of the group's biologists, Pablo Mascarenas, was detained by the guards but later released. However, the group got away with its samples, which will be sent to the University of Barcelona for analysis.

"We want to establish exactly what the toxicity is," said Eva Hernandez, habitats campaigner for Greenpeace Spain. "The government and the company are not saying. We know there are heavy metals in it, but they won't say what and they won't give out a list, so we will do an analysis of our own."

The mine management distanced itself from the guards' actions, which were "too tough", according to a spokesman, Anders Ampomsson. He said a very small amount of waste was still leaking from the reservoir. He was not prepared to say what it contained precisely, but added: "We have taken some samples, but we haven't analysed them yet. We are prepared to do whatever is required, and we are waiting for the authorities to give us permission to get on with it."

Yesterday the company's president, Anders Bulow, went to inspect the waste pond with the president of the Andalusian regional government, Manuel Chaves. Later it was announced that a special team was being formed to cope with the clean-up and compensation operations. It was not a moment too soon for the World Wide Fund for Nature, whose Spanish office yesterday lambasted the lack of co-ordination between government agencies and institutions in response to the incident.