Travels with the minister

John Prescott finds breathtaking beauty next to toxic disaster on a whistlestop weekend in Spain
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The Independent Online
"MAGIC," said the man looking through the telescope next to me. A big red deer had just waded languorously through swamp water and ambled on to dry land.

"You could see it in a zoo," John Prescott went on, "but here it is private in its own water, as if we weren't here. I'll never forget it."

It was Friday, World Environment Day, and we were in Europe's biggest nature reserve, the haunting Coto Donana in southern Spain. Prescott said it was the day that he really learnt the meaning of the word "biodiversity". His education took place while helicoptering over the site of one of Europe's worst toxic disasters, dealing with the gradual closure of Dounreay over the breakfast table, and doing some hard bargaining over global warming amid sands that had served as the backdrop for the filming of Lawrence of Arabia.

The Spanish government had invited the Deputy Prime Minister, as president of the council of European environment ministers, to visit the 185,000- acre park, a refuge for 250 species of birds and some of Europe's rarest wildlife, and to see the consequences of the spill of 5 million cubic metres of toxic water and mud near its borders just six weeks ago. I joined him and three of his aides to inspect one of the greatest disasters ever to threaten a world-class nature reserve.

FEW MINISTERS can be relishing office quite as much as John Prescott. Constantly on the go, "walking and talking", the mobile phone burning up the ether even in the middle of one of Europe's last wildernesses, he takes an open - and rather endearing - delight in making things happen. So far he shows no signs of flagging, despite the wide range of subjects covered by his giant Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, and the extra duties of the deputy leadership.

On the flight out to Seville - after a nap as soon as he sank into his business-class seat - he closely read the press coverage of the complicated financial package he had put together to rescue the Channel Tunnel rail link. Next he worked on the forthcoming White Paper on transport - which is his most cherished brainchild. Arrived at the airport, he had a brief meeting with the Spanish junior environment minister and Director of Nature Conservation, Juan Luis Muriel, where he produced his idea that Europe might set up a special European taskforce to tackle environmental disasters.

Once we'd settled into the ornate Alfonso XIII Hotel, next to Seville's massive cathedral -- the burial place of Christopher Columbus - we were about to go out to dinner in the old town. Then the phone rang: ministers were planning next morning to announce the run-down and the closure of Dounreay, the controversial and accident-prone nuclear site on the north coast of Scotland.

The announcement was an abrupt U-turn. Only last month - as reported in the Independent on Sunday last week - the Government had ditched a proposal, overwhelmingly approved by last year's Labour Party conference, for a review of nuclear re-processing, the main activity at Dounreay and the equally controversial plant at Sellafield. Had the review taken place, it might well have saved them the embarrassment of Friday's abrupt announcement, made after a string of revelations of mishaps at the plant that had been gleefully exploited by the resurgent Scottish Nationalist Party.

Prescott had had advance notice of the surprise decision, and had written to the ministers involved before he left London. Two hours of phone calls from his hotel room ensued, as he worked over the details of the announcement and urged that the political implications were thought through.

Finally, at 12.45am, when the rest of us were ready for bed, the Secretary of State announced that he wanted a walk. So we set off into the old town, ending up at a cafe where, over a glass of aniseed liqueur, he told jokes and stories from his early days at sea.

AT BREAKFAST next morning it was Dounreay again, with constant calling around the anterooms of power. Though no nuclear fanatic, Prescott wanted to ensure that the announcement, and the press conferences that followed, focused strictly on the Dounreay site, and did not call the future of Sellafield, or nuclear reprocessing in general, into question too.

Then off to the Coto Donana, bumping over dirt tracks in Land Rovers, with Mr Muriel and the national park director, and both their entourages. "The jewel in the crown of Spain", it is a flat, delicately balanced expanse of marsh, dryland and dunes; the air is suffused with the scents of rosemary, lavender, and camomile. We stopped to see the deer, to see flamingos stalking daintily through the water and an imperial eagle, one of Europe's rarest birds, on its nest. By one lagoon, we were admiring a bright kingfisher and a pair of water turtles, when a wild boar suddenly trotted out from the undergrowth, stared at us, and turned tail.

A year ago to the day, at Prescott's first press conference in the job, a journalist patronisingly asked him what he knew about "biodiversity", the technical term for the wide range of the world's species. The new deputy PM had replied "nothing", adding that there was too much complicated language in the field.

As the boar departed, Prescott remembered this. He added: "Today is the day I really know what biodiversity means. It is like an elephant. You may not be able to describe it, but you know it when you see it."

On to the wide belt of shifting dunes on the coast of the reserve, where Prescott, wasting no time, lobbied the Spanish minister for backing for a British attempt to get a European directive setting standards for zoos. Then, as we stood in the sands sipping sherry and nibbling cured ham, a phone call came in on the mobile from the Spanish environment minister, Isobel Tocino. Prescott seized the opportunity to try to persuade Spain to reduce its targets for emissions of carbon dioxide, the main cause of global warming, in the EU negotiations due to come to a head this month. He ended the call saying he had had a "welcome" reaction.

LUNCH was at Tony and Cherie Blair's Easter hideaway, the white-washed Maris Millas Palace - a former hunting lodge in the heart of the Donana, complete with its own chapel, a stuffed lynx and a curious swimming pool raised above ground level to avoid the high water table. The Prime Minister had gone there, at the Spanish Premier's invitation, immediately after concluding Ulster's Good Friday agreement.

"I must admit I didn't know what to expect, and if I had it wouldn't have been as good as I found," Prescott told his hosts in the blue wood- panelled dining-room. He added that when he speaks at the council of European environment ministers this month, "it will be with vivid pictures in my mind of what it is we have to save".

But the next images were of destruction and danger as we took off by helicopter to fly over the scene of last April's disaster. Some 10,000 acres of land beside the park have been buried under toxic mud, after a dam holding back mining waste broke and sent a 500-yard-wide black wall of poisonous water surging down the Guadiamar river towards the park.

We flew over field after blighted field - choked with mud full of toxic metals such as cadmium, nickel and manganese - all the way up to the black moonscape of the emptied reservoir behind the broken dam at the Los Fraiels mine, which is owned by a Swedish-Canadian company. Here fleets of trucks were removing the contaminated mud and dropping it down a disused open mine nearby.

All agricultural produce from the farmland in the area has been banned and the Andalusian government is about to start buying up all the contaminated land, compulsorily if needs be. It then plans to plant it with trees, which will soak up the heavy metals, creating a "green wall" of forest.

Despite raging for four days, the toxic tide was kept out of the national park while the waters leading into it were sealed off. But nobody knows what the long-term consequences will be. Many of the Donana's birds have long fed on the area now contaminated, and there are fears that the toxic metals may work their way up the food chain. And a quarter of the park's water supplies from local rivers have been shut off to keep the poison out, endangering the balance of its fragile ecology.

Then it was time to fly back to Gatwick where Prescott had a car waiting that would get him home to Hull - trying to sleep en route - by 3.30 yesterday morning.

Today he turns south again and flies off to New York to make a speech on drugs, sign a charter on saving the oceans, and do some more arm-twisting on global warming. On Tuesday he will be back in the Commons for parliamentary questions.

He seems to be earning his money.