Zinc and arsenic residues in neighbors’ nails: This is the scientific truth about the phosphogypsum accumulated in Huelva

Zinc and arsenic residues in neighbors’ nails: This is the scientific truth about the phosphogypsum accumulated in Huelva

The committee of 20 scientific experts is blunt about the planned plan to bury the 120 million toxic tons of phosphogypsum dumped next to Huelva: it warns that this will only postpone the environmental and health problem and the “rapid asymmetry” and does not trigger sinking” and the risk of the raft collapsing. It is a contaminated heritage for future generations who will suffer its effects: “The project presented by Fertiberia cannot be considered as a definitive solution for the recovery and recovery of the marshes affected by the phosphogypsum basins,” reads the one presented a few days ago Final report a month ago to Gabriel Cruz (PSOE), mayor of the Andalusian city (150,000 inhabitants) to whom this newspaper had access. But the report says much more. For example, the data shows that residents who live closer to the stakes have more traces of zinc, arsenic, selenium and molybdenum in their nails than Huelva residents from other parts of the city. “Right now we just stabilized the patient and bought time. The funeral doesn’t solve the problem, it mitigates it. The problem could be our children or grandchildren,” predicts José Rodríguez, President of the Expert Committee and Vice Rector for Research and Transfer at the University of Huelva. The phosphogypsum accumulated over 1,200 hectares is the legacy of the production of phosphoric acid for agricultural fertilizers between 1968 and 2010 and its accumulation a few meters from the sea.

“The Fertiberia project does not assess the impact of bioaccumulation of toxic substances in the population, nor their potential consequences; it neither takes into account the climate change scenarios in the various safety calculation hypotheses, nor does it specify compensatory measures for the affected areas,” criticize the researchers. The report complains that the stack recovery plan lacks a dedicated seismic study and incomplete geological characterization of the foundation materials and base of the rafts; its functional hydrogeological model is incorrect, failing to relate groundwater, surface water and the phosphogypsum basin; and does not prevent the runoff and transport of pollutants into the environment. Experts have identified 60 “highly polluting” liquid discharges into the sump with pH levels of 1.94 [mucho más ácida que el agua del estuario, cuyo pH está entre 4 y 8].

Toxic water infiltrations of phosphogypsum in the Huelva estuary.Infiltrations of toxic water from phosphogypsum in the Huelva estuary DEPARTMENT OF EARTH SCIENCES, UNIVERSITY OF HUELVA

After a year and a half of shelving the scientific reports without convening the Participation Table, which briefs the political parties, unions, neighborhood groups and environmentalists, a City Council spokeswoman assures that in September he will transmit the worrying data dating from 2015 collected for these toxic reasons. Huelva City Council has declined to reply on this. Whether or not the consistory takes the plunge, the University of Huelva will convene a few open days so that citizens know what science has found out about phosphogypsum stacks after studying them in detail.

The scientists want to submit their conclusions to the board of directors, who will approve the project or not, but with knowledge of the dangers that a burial entails. It is possible that the Andalusian government will speak out before the investigation, funded by the Board itself with 200,000 euros, and not reach the politicians and technicians who have to decide on the matter. “A process must be initiated to seek proposals for the recovery and restoration of the affected swamps (…) that will reduce the environmental impact as much as possible and ensure the long-term safety of the population,” the report concludes. The swamps of the Odiel Estuary were declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1983.

In 2020, the Ministry of Ecological Transition gave its approval to the restoration project worth 66 million; Three months ago, the National Security Council (CSN) decided that it provides radiological security and now the Junta de Andalucía is finalizing its environmental permit so work can start before the end of the year.

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Subscribe toAerial view of the phosphogypsum ponds in Huelva, 2020. GREENPEACEAerial view of the phosphogypsum basins in Huelva, 2020. GREENPEACEEuropa Press

Last month, the six expert working groups from the Universities of Huelva and Granada, the Higher Center for Scientific Research (CSIC), the Geological and Mining Institute (IGME) and ISGlobal agreed on their conclusions around the key aspects that they analyze and measure, to date the hazard: public health, hydrogeology and water quality, air quality, radiological assessment and subsurface geology. The summary is that the solution of burying the phosphogypsum under half a meter of earth and clay has no perspective and long searchlights.

The experts could not access the requested statistics and data to increase their knowledge because Fertiberia and the board refused them, although they were obliged to provide them. Without detailed studies, it is impossible to measure the actual effects of phosphogypsum on people’s health, “a crucial element”, the scientists criticize. This can happen through local fishing, bathing areas, or the dispersal of particles through the air in Huelva and nearby towns like Palos de la Frontera.

Regarding the geology of the subsoil of the ponds, the researchers criticize that Fertiberia used “old bibliographic data” which resulted in an “outdated, inaccurate and incomplete” project. According to the report, the company has ignored the differential sagging of the stack and its hoop deformation, as well as the “high sagging” of Zone 2 and the possible presence of flaws affecting the stability of the stacks. Furthermore, the project ignores that there are deltaic structures with contaminants in the estuary and therefore does not propose to correct them. The company uses sodium bentonite to seal the existing perforations, but scientists recommend replacing it with cement or clay, which guarantees its insulation.

Graphic of the phosphogypsum basins in Huelva.  / DEPARTMENT OF EARTH SCIENCES, UNIVERSITY OF HUELVAGraphic of the phosphogypsum basins in Huelva. / DEPARTMENT OF EARTH SCIENCES, UNIVERSITY OF HUELVA

At the same time, the researchers warn that the stability of the rafts would be adversely affected by tsunamis. Last Sunday, an earthquake measuring 5.4 degrees on the Richter scale was triggered at a depth of 62 kilometers in the Gulf of Cadiz and was felt in Huelva.

The experts recommend as urgent measures the elimination of “the edge outlets” to avoid environmentally harmful inputs, to stabilize the ponds geotechnically – without dikes or retaining walls and “enormous deformations” – to maintain a space-time monitoring of leaks to swamps, to continue the search for alternative solutions to the Fertiberia project “for a real recovery and restoration of the affected areas”. In addition, they propose “transparent communication” in order to “reduce the concerns and worries of the population” and at the same time let them participate in project-related decisions. The ball is now on the roof of the city council to get the information out to the public, and on the roof of the board of directors to correct the plan based on scientific advice or leave it as Fertiberia proposes.

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