Toxic disaster bars Spanish pilgrims' progress

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TENS OF thousands of people setting out yesterday on Europe's biggest annual pilgrimage had to make a five-mile detour to avoid trudging through toxic sludge spilled five weeks ago from a mine reservoir.

The disruption of one of Spain's most religious festivals - the Virgin of the Rocio (dew) in Seville - in which pilgrims arrayed in gaudy finery accompany flower-bedecked, horse-drawn wagons across the Andalucian fields, has brought home the devastation inflicted by the ecological disaster of 25 April, when tons of poison waste gushed towards one of Europe's most important nature reserves, the Coto Donana.

A highpoint of the Rocio pilgrimage is ritual immersion for first-timers in the waters of the river Guadiamar. But this year it had to be abandoned. Some pilgrims, loath to quit their traditional route, crossed the stinking river by barge. Earthmovers paused to let them pass before resuming their task of gouging away the toxic mud.

Infuriated by the government's leisurely response to the crisis, the Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar, made his first visit to the scene last weekend, a month after the event.

Meanwhile, the pro-communist United Left (IU) opposition party this week launched a public prosecution of the environment ministry and the Swedish- owned Boliden mine company for what IU's leader, Antonio Romero, calls "the worst ecological crime in Spanish history".

The government has pledged 4.5bn ptas (pounds 18m) to cover clean-up costs and promises the mud will be cleared away before the end of October when there is a risk autumn rains could wash the corrosive acids into the Donana National Park.

The Environment Minister, Isabel Tocino, has announced an eight-year plan to purify the waters that feed the Donana but said that responsibility for paying for the clean-up - estimated at up to pounds 63m - lay with those who caused the spill.

Boliden denies negligence, but has contributed machinery and personnel to help the clean-up operation and will advance up to pounds 4m to reimburse farmers. It will also buy up the poisoned harvest - up to 9,000 acres have been contaminated by the spill, ruining the livelihood of 2,000 farming families in one of Spain's poorest regions.