Race to halt an avalanche of garbage

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The Independent Online
Fifty workmen wearing protective face masks and using mechanical diggers are working round the clock to stabilise a fermenting garbage mountain that threatens to slip into the sea and cause an ecological disaster on Spain's rocky north-western coast.

A 100,000-ton festering rubbish tip near the Galician port of La Coruna is advancing towards the sea at a rate of 10cm a day. The municipal dump west of the town exploded into activity more than a week ago, when part of it shook loose and engulfed cars and houses in the neglected fishing settlement of Portino. One man was swept away along with the car he was washing.

Since then, the mountain has taken on a life of its own, continually shifting and heaving. Huge fissures have opened, up to 100 metres across. Hundreds of Portino residents, caught between the rubbish and the sea, were last week evacuated to La Coruna's Riazor football stadium. Many are sitting in, ignoring appeals from the Town Hall that they should now return home.

The Socialist mayor, Francisco Vasquez, called for the area to be declared a national disaster zone and warned yesterday of "an environmental catastrophe of the first magnitude" should the rubbish plunge into the sea and wash along the coast. He said efforts were being made to build a dike to hold back the tumbling mass.

Locals say that little fires spontaneously ignite because fermentation produces methane gas, and that residual liquids - rich in toxic compounds and heavy metals from spent batteries - seep from beneath the mound towards the sea.

Desperately seeking to avert an avalanche, the local authority last week started shifting material from the mountain's summit and dumped it near the village of San Pedro de Visma. As a result, up to 100 outraged villagers donned face masks and protested that the detritus be shifted from their doorsteps. Fans of the local football team Deportivo wore their scarves tied firmly over their nose and mouth during Sunday's league match at the Riazor.

The Town Hall insists there is no health risk, but at least three people were treated in hospital for vomiting and dizziness attributed to the stink.