Spanish government appeals against toxic spill case finding

The Environment Ministry has appealed a judge’s decision not to prosecute employees of a mining company and builders over Spain’s worst environmental disaster.

Judge Celia Belhajd-Ben Gómez ruled at the end of December that the 25 accused were not responsible of serious imprudence when a mine reservoir collapsed in 1998 causing nearly seven million cubic metres of toxic sludge and contaminated water to leak into a river near the Doñana National Park, one of Europe’s largest nature reserves and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As a result, thousands of birds, fish and animals were killed and the breeding grounds of rare birds polluted in the south-western corner of Spain, close to the Portuguese border.

Commenting on the judge’s decision, however, Environment Minister Jaume Matas said that it set “a dangerous precedent of ecological impunity”, Spanish media reported. On 5 January his ministry decided to appeal the ruling saying that “the imprudence committed must be considered as severe, which means the existence of an environmental crime”, and warned that if an appeal failed, civil charges would be filed.

Those accused by the government include seven employees of the mining firm Boliden Apirsa, a subsidiary of the Swedish-Canadian group Boliden; 13 workers from the Spanish group which built the reservoir, Dragados; two local government officials and three from a Spanish mining institute.

Boliden said it was pleased with the judge’s decision and that it planned to sue two subsidiaries of Dragados for damages. Dragados, denies any wrongdoing, however.

Judge Gómez and the Public Ministry of Andalucia, the region where the disaster occurred, both agree, however, that the reservoir had been built according to “habitual or conventional practice” of the time, and thus relieving those accused of any criminal responsibility.

The Green Party, ecologists and the United Left Party are supporting the national government in its accusations of criminal responsibility, the latter suggesting that the regional authorities had influenced the judge’s decision. Juan Romero, spokesman for Ecologists in Action, one of Spain’s largest green groups, said that the group “shared neither the attitude, behaviour nor decision of the judge” and accused her of disregarding 40 pieces of evidence presented by the group.

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