SPAIN'S authorities started clearing 7 million tons of poison sludge spread along 40km of riverbed yesterday, more than a week after a burst reservoir near Seville sent toxic mining waste cascading towards the country's most important nature reserve.
After dithering and mutual accusations, the Environment Ministry, the Andalucian regional government and the Swedish mining company Boliden- Apirsa launched a joint operation, each dealing with a section of the Guadiamar river, which skirts Coto Donana national park.
Bulldozers moved to cart off contaminated topsoil and mud impregnated with heavy metals and acidic chemicals. The operation, financed by Boliden, is expected to take a month, after which new topsoil must be laid to enable the land to regenerate. The waste will be dumped in abandoned mineworks in Aznalcollar, near the reservoir that cracked open on 25 April, until a final destination is decided. Locals say the operation must be completed before October, when autumn rains will wash the deadly cocktail deeper into the terrain and aquifers supplying the wetlands of the park.
Volunteers in protective clothing and face masks have cleared away more than 15 tons of dead fish in a desperate attempt to keep the poison from entering the food chain of rare birds and animals inhabiting the protected area. However, dead birds have started to appear already along the riverbanks, and the rotting carcasses of a sheep and a deer, possibly poisoned from drinking toxic waters, were found in marshlands on the outskirts of Donana. Scientists warn it could take decades for the ecosystem to recover from the disaster.
Exasperated by government shillyshallying, green protesters poured buckets of stinking black water and dead fish down the steps of the Environment Ministry in Madrid on Saturday, calling upon the minister, Isabel Tocino, to resign.
Making his first comment a week after the event, the Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar, promised that victims "would not be forgotten".
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