Huelva plans to bury the toxic rafts of phosphogypsum
Aerial view of the toxic phosphogypsum pools of the Fertiberia company, with the city of Huelva 500 meters away.
Aerial view of the toxic phosphogypsum pools of the Fertiberia company, with the city of Huelva 500 meters away.PACO BRIDGES

Huelva has two serious environmental problems in the coastal heart of its province: the toxic pools of phosphogypsum and the heavy metals that mining contributes to the Tinto and Odiel rivers. The first and main one will foreseeably be buried under a layer of one meter of earth and clay, waiting for the final approval from the Andalusian Board. Will this carpet put an end to the risk of contamination in a seaside enclave that affects the capital and five towns?

The opinions are conflicting, and if the administrations and the Fertiberia company guarantee that it is safe to try to seal the rafts, the scientists doubt that it is possible due to the continuous leaks caused by the tides. However, the first opinion has the support of the Ministry for the Ecological Transition and the Nuclear Safety Council (CSN), and everything indicates that it will be imposed. The future of these 720 hectares is key in a province that faces the sea and must resolve this hot potato in the best way and without burning.

A week ago, located just 500 meters from the city of Huelva, the mountains of phosphogypsum —derived from the production of agricultural fertilizers, which rise up to 25 meters— gave a privileged perspective of the estuary. White and green flooded the nearest horizon, with supposedly compact mountains surrounded by lakes of lethal acidic waters in a total area of ​​1,120 hectares, with the five rafts included. With the mouth of the Tinto River a stone’s throw away, the environmental cocktail, without a clear destination since the accumulation of phosphogypsum was prohibited in 2010, has a difficult solution in the face of the risk of earthquakes or tsunamis.

Over five decades, millions of tons of industrial waste were dumped —120 million according to the University of Huelva, 76 million according to the company—. Today the most likely restoration plan is to bury these mountains underground, as the company proposed. “It will be a green lung with a sealing of breakwaters that will have everything encapsulated and monitored for 30 years,” says Juan Ramón Miró, technical manager of the project. “If someone builds a villa on the beach, justice forces them to tear it down and take away the rubble, and here the rafts will be covered with sand and left where they are. That is not a solution in a marsh with a high natural value”, replies Rafael Gavilán, from the Mesa de la Ría, a local political party that opposes the burying of phosphogypsum. “We will continue fighting in the courts,” he warns about the dispute opened in the National High Court.

Bypass canal of water filtered from the phosphogypsum, with the city of Huelva in the background.
Bypass canal of water filtered from the phosphogypsum, with the city of Huelva in the background. PACO BRIDGES

After the positive environmental impact declaration from the ministry, a month ago the CSN authorized the plan to cover the phosphogypsum together with pyrite ash, natural uranium and heavy metals, because it considers that it has radiological safety. “The CSN’s opinion is an accolade and our intention is to start with the plan before the end of the year,” advances David Herrero, director of Fertiberia’s industrial area, who stresses that the current levels of radioactivity are “very low.” “I would take my children to the future park,” he says.

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A scientific study carried out in 2019 revealed “constant seepage” by the tides. The estuary water has a PH of between four and eight and the one that returns from the ponds a value of 1, much more acidic and loaded with contaminants, concluded the investigation by Rafael Pérez, an expert in hydrology from the Department of Earth Sciences of the University of Huelva.

Before the start of the works, it is still necessary for the Board to grant its integrated environmental authorization. Despite the fact that the Andalusian Ministry of Sustainable Development already knows if the plan implies an impact on people’s health, it has refused to answer questions from this newspaper. The project leaves an area of ​​125 hectares with phosphogypsum, construction waste and radioactive ashes pending, for which Fertiberia must present a new plan and submit it to an environmental assessment.

Aerial view of the water bypass channel in the phosphogypsum deposits.
Aerial view of the water bypass channel in the phosphogypsum deposits.PACO BRIDGES

While the main environmental problem is being addressed, the easternmost Andalusian province faces the future with some optimism after having lowered its unemployment rate to 18.2%, five points less than the figure registered in 2019, before the pandemic. That yes, the wealth does not permeate the population and the average gross annual salary only reaches 13,896 euros, weighed down by the low salaries of tourism and the agriculture of red fruits, according to calculations by the Institute of Statistics and Cartography of Andalusia (IECA), with data from 2020. “Out of every 10 workers, six earn the minimum interprofessional wage or less,” censors Julia Perea, general secretary of CC OO in Huelva.

The problems of the province go beyond precarious salaries: it lacks good rail connections, internet broadband is limited to the coastal axis and the main road -to Seville- bears heavy traffic because some 10,000 people work and live between both provinces. From 1985 to 2018, only 0.9% of all national investment translated into road, rail, airport and port infrastructure for the province, according to an analysis by the Independent Authority for Fiscal Responsibility (Airef). “The lack of investment from the State is unfortunate and impoverishes the population. It is a strangulation and the different governments have diverted taxes to other provinces”, criticizes Juan José García, Professor of Economics at the University of Huelva and former president of the province’s Economic and Social Council, who puts the State’s investment deficit at more than 2 billion since 1990.

In the economy of the province, the chemical industry has a significant weight (8% of employment) and is now in full swing with the forthcoming reduction of fossil fuels and the progressive decarbonisation of the activity.

Casting wheels with molten copper at the Atlantic Copper plant in Huelva.
Casting wheels with molten copper at the Atlantic Copper plant in Huelva.

And in this transformation, the first project in Spain to recover the copper from the electrical circuits of electronic devices, including mobile phones, called Circular, stands out, with an investment of 262 million. 48% of electronic devices are not recycled properly in Spain and the Atlantic Copper plant on the outskirts of Huelva will receive from 2024 a shredded granulate of electrical appliances to prevent them from ending up in ditches, illegal landfills, or exported abroad illegally. “The copper from the mines has less and less grade and 13,000 tons a year will come from electronic devices,” predicts Carlos Ortiz, general director of metallurgy at the US multinational.

When fully operational, the new plant in Huelva could absorb all those electronic devices that are not recycled in Spain today. “If there are people who value the devices, a more powerful collection capillarity will be created,” Ortiz envisions. The new industrial process to extract copper from electronic devices will mean that the workforce will increase by one hundred, from the current 724 employees that the firm has in Huelva.

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