How much have Spain’s five worst environmental disasters cost the treasury?

by Deborah Cater
environmental disasters cost Spain billions
del canto chambers 2

The images of the major environmental disasters that occurred in Spain are still fresh on many people’s minds. Not to mention the immense ecological damage, these disasters have cost the Spanish treasury billions of euros. What went wrong?

The serious environmental disasters meant an additional government expenditure of €2.138 billion. Only a small part of this, €176million, to be precise, has been paid out by insurance. The Spanish Public Prosecution Service is doing everything it can to recover the €855million a British insurance company has yet to pay for the consequences of the disaster with the oil tanker Prestige in Galicia.

The thousands of litres of oil that poured into the Atlantic after the Prestige was shipwrecked, the disaster for the Donaña nature reserve, two major fires in Valencia, the discharge of toxic and radioactive substances into the Flix reservoir and the decades-long dumping of waste into the Bay of Pórtman are the five biggest environmental disasters in Spanish history.

Cost of shipwreck oil tanker Prestige: more than €4.3 billion 

On November 13, 2002, oil tanker Prestige started leaking oil, 30 kilometres off the coast of Cape Finisterre. After the Spanish authorities refused to allow the ship to get closer to the coast, it was towed further out into the ocean where it broke in two. It was 260 kilometres west of Vigo, pouring 63,200 tons of crude oil into the sea. The oil slick spread to the French and Portuguese coasts. The cleaning work in the sea and on the coast took years.

The total costs of the disaster were estimated by the Public Prosecution Service in 2013 at more than €4.328 billion. The Supreme Court ruled in December 2018 Spain is entitled to compensation of €1.573 billion. However, a significant part of this will never end up in the Spanish treasury. A ruling by the highest court in England ordered the British insurance company to pay out the maximum insurance amount of €855.5 millions.

Spain has already collected €22.7 million of this. This means, two decades after the disaster, only a fraction of the total amount of insurance money has been paid out. The International Fund for Compensation for Oil Pollution Damage, on the other hand, has paid €142.1 million to the Spanish state for this environmental disaster.

Environmental disaster costs Doñana Natural Park: €240 million 

In 1998, as a result of a dike breach, six million cubic meters of heavy metals and other toxic substances flowed from a reservoir directly into the Agrio and Guadiamar rivers. These highly toxic substances came from the mine at Aznalcóllar in the province of Seville. The heavily poisoned water reached the Doñana Natural Park through 4,634 affected hectares, spread over nine municipalities. The Spanish government invested €240 million in the removal of lead and other toxic substances from the water and the ecological restoration of the more than 40 kilometres long river Gaudiamar, located between the mine and the natural park.

The Swedish mining multinational Boliden Apirsa, which discharged the toxic substances in the reservoir, cleaned 20% of the polluted area. The Ministry of the Environment took care of 7.4% and the local government of Andalucia another 72.5%. This sub-administration demanded €89 million in damages from Boliden, the central government demanded another amount of €43.7 million. The Spanish Supreme Court awarded this full amount of damages.

However, 23 years later, the Spanish state has not seen a cent of the total of €132.7 million. The Swedish multinational declared the Spanish mine bankrupt and released itself from all obligations. Spain has so far failed to hold the Swedish parent company responsible for the financial consequences of this serious environmental disaster.

Costs of the environmental disaster of the Flix reservoir: €220 million

For years, chemical company Ercros discharged heavy metals and radioactive substances into the reservoir of Flix (Tarragona), on the river Ebro. Ercros denies that it discharged the highly toxic substances, claiming they must have come from other companies.

A study by Greenpeace shows almost a million inhabitants were affected by the very high concentrations of toxic waste. More than 120 tons of contaminated water had to be treated as a result of Ercros’ business activities. Cost: €220 million.

C&D Solicitors

The work took considerably longer than expected, but the main work is now complete. Neither the Spanish nor the Catalan authorities have any information about any compensation paid by the chemical company.  The Spanish court holds the company civilly responsible for cleaning the silt and the banks of the river. The discharge of the waste is said to have taken place between September 1988 and August 1993. In the court decision, Ebro was obliged to pay water company Acuamed compensation of €11.3 million, which is 5% of the total costs. The remaining 95% is accounted for by the Spanish state.

Bay of Portmán environmental disaster costs: €90 million 

Between 1957 and 1991, 60 million tons of waste from the Peñarroya mine in La Unión (Murcia) were discharged directly into the sea. This also concerned highly toxic heavy metals. At Portman Bay, the poison flowed 12 kilometres into the sea.

According to the then director of Greenpeace Spain, Xavier Pastor, the environmental organisation closed all pipelines in 1986 and then sued the mining company for committing an environmental offence. The judge acquitted the mining company. In 1991, the mine was taken over by Pórtman Golf, which ended the discharge of the toxic waste. According to a spokesman for Pórtman Golf, the company was not obliged to clean the polluted bay. The cleaning work in the bay has not been completed to this day.

The Ministry of the Environment presented another cleaning project in 2005, for which the costs were estimated at €100 million. This amount was later reduced to €32 million. The first work to clean the bay started in 2016. However, the ministry ordered it to be stopped again in 2019 due to lack of budget.

Work is currently underway on an alternative project for which a starting amount of €369,000 has been made available. However,  the total investment remains unclear. According to Mayor Pedro López Millán of La Unión, this will rise to about €90 million. According to him, the mining company has enriched itself, committing the most serious environmental crime in the Mediterranean region.

Cost of fire in Dos Aguas: €15.4 million 

In June 2012, the largest fire to rage in Spain in ten years broke out in Cortes de Pallás (Valencia). The cause of the fire was the negligence of employees of Energía Solar Levante S.L. who installed solar panels on a house in June of that year.

According to the district council of Valencia, the flames destroyed at least 29 thousand hectares of natural land. Due to the high temperatures and strong winds, the fire brigade was unable to get the fire under control at the time. In addition, a second fire broke out near Andilla, as a result of negligence in burning garden waste. As a result, another 21 hectares of natural land was destroyed. The fires killed one person and the pilot and co-pilot of a fire fighting helicopter were seriously injured.

The extinguishing work cost the Valencia region €760,000, another €9 million went to help all victims of the fire and another €5.67 million to restore the scorched nature. These repairs will start in the coming months, the Valencian district council announced.

The Valencia Court ruled the forest fire was the result of serious human negligence. It sentenced the perpetrators to 10 months in prison. They also ordered the company to pay compensation for the financial damage suffered by both the sub-administration and private individuals. The company was insured for an amount of more than €748,000, the insurance company says it has now paid this amount to the court.

Of this, only €80,963 will go to the government of Valencia, the rest will be distributed among the individuals who had suffered damage to their homes due to the fire.

Spain also has outstanding violations

However, Spain is not only picking up the bill for environmental disasters caused by others. Spain still has 30 outstanding environmental violations against its name.

You may also like