Huelva River spill highlights industrial waste risks

A spill of many thousands of cubic metres of highly acidic wastewater into the Rio Tinto in Huelva, Spain, has drawn attention to local concerns over the security of an estimated 80 million tonnes of industrial wastes stored on tidal marshlands in the Region.

On 31 December 1998, high winds caused waves to break the wall of a reservoir storing hundreds of thousands of cubic metres of highly acidic water (pH 1.5 approx). Officially, 50,000m3 of wastewater spilled into the Rio Tinto, although local ecologist groups estimate the spill at several times this magnitude. A spokesman for the local group Ecologistas en Accion (EA) told edie the group had made official complaints last year that the reservoir was dangerously full and the walls not secure enough.

The environmental impact of the spill is hard to tell, says EA, as the river is “largely dead anyway due to pollution from mining activities”.

The water stored in the reservoir was used to pump sludge wastes from the production of phosphoric acid in two factories, to storage basins on tidal marshland. According to EA, over 1,000,000 ha of land is currently used for storing some 80 million tonnes of this waste in such basins. The waste, derived from mixing phosphate-containing rocks with sulphuric acid, can contain a range of heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, chromium, and is isolated from the sea by walls similar to the one that broke last year, says EA. The firms generate an estimated 2.5 million tonnes of this waste a year, and plan to continue storing it as at present for around 18 years.

EA has made official complaints to the courts, against the directors of the two firms, Fertiberia and Foret, and against the authorities that granted permission for the wastes to be stored with no environmental impact assessment. According to the national daily, EL Pais, the political party Izquierda Unida (IU) has also lodged complaints with the courts against the firms and against the provincial and state enviornmental authorities. An IU spokesman called for citizens to take action, and challenged the provincial environment delegate to swim in the river, saying he would come out with no hair because of the pollution.

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