Barcelona Field Studies Centre

Doñana National Park: Toxic Waste Pollution Management Issues

Management Issues: Who pays?

Recent events in southern Spain have increased the awareness of large scale mining and its adverse effects upon fragile environments. The dam failure at the Los Frailes mine released between 5-7 million tonnes of tailing waste in the river Guadiamar. The spill covered large areas of river flood plains, killed birds and fish, and polluted the water courses. Large scale pollution of the Doñana 'World Heritage' nature park was narrowly avoided. The company involved and the Spanish government were unprepared. The spill was however not the first, and will not be the last.

April 25, 1998: The waste dam at the Los Frailes mine Spain failed due to an earthslide in the bedrock below the dam. The slide was caused by excess pressure from the weight of the dam and the tailings. This pressure caused the dam to shift and cracks to form. A crack at the southeast end of the dam discharged 1.3 million cubic metres of solid waste and 5.5 million cubic metres of water. This has had huge socio-environmental implications - the toxic waste has killed many fish and birds and flooded thousands of hectacres of farmland. Who is to blame?
Is it Apirsa, the Spanish company which operated the mine?
Is it the Canadian firm, Boliden Ltd. who owns Apirsa? Is it the contractor, Dragados y Construcciones? Is it the engineering firms, Itecsa and Geocisa, who designed the dam? Neither the original project survey in 1977 or a 1996 Geocisa stability report of the geology beneath the dam indicated possible problems.
Who is responsible for the damage?


Issue Government Mine Owners Conservationists
The breaking of the dam was foreseeable, as was stated in the Expert Report submitted to the Sanlúcar la Mayor Magistrates' Court The government inspectors issued safety certificates for the dam.

The government blame the mine company for not ensuring the safety of the dam. They point to a report prepared for the mining company describing the weak point of the dam two years in advance of the failure.


Claim that there was no way to foresee the incident and have subsequently blamed the construction company and the government's inspectors who issued the safety certificate. Blame the catastrophe on the Canadian-Swedish company Boliden, which owns the Los Frailes mine where the spill took place - and on the government for failing to enforce security provisions.
"The company and the authorities knew there were concerns about the security of the dam," Spanish Greenpeace representative Juan Lopez said.
They demand the implementation of an adequate restoration plan for the mine
It took 9 days before clean-up operations began The government was unprepared The mine owners were unprepared Criticise the lack of preparation
Clean-up cost $270 million funded by Spanish and European taxpayers Fined the company $45 million

Launched two important restoration programmes aimed at repairing the damages of the toxic flood and improving the ecological conditions in the whole Doñana area: the Guadiamar Green Corridor and the Doñana 2005 Plans.

Left Spain and filed for bankruptcy Criticise the enormous delays due to the indecisiveness of the Public Administrations as well as to the lack of political willpower

Point out the continued seepage of toxic liquids from the mine, the uncontrolled industrial waste water discharged into the Guadiamar river and the current delay in the establishment of a legal protection status for the area.

Was the dam correctly sited?
Was a risk assessment carried out?

Risk Assessment example: Waste Retaining Dam

Activity or Operation Possible Initiating Events Possible Consequences Available Safeguards
Storage of waste Severe storm event


Dam overflow and pollution of downstream waters

Location of dam to minimise consequences of release

Conservative design of dam to take account of foreseeable extreme weather events