SPAIN: Spanish Copper Project Arouses Environmental Anger

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A plan to start the biggest open pit copper mine in Europe in southern Spain has run into opposition from environmentalists who fear it will pollute a river with poisonous heavy metals.

Canadian company Inmet Mining Corporation (IMN.TO: Quote) is preparing a site in the province of Seville to extract 72,000 tonnes of copper cathodes a year from the high-grade Las Cruces mine starting in January 2008.

The company, which says it will discharge only clean filtered water into the Guadalquivir River, has clearance from the regional government, the Junta de Andalucia, and has been promised subsidies of 54 million euros ($69 million).

But Ecologists in Action, the group leading the campaign against the mine, says it thinks the mine will dump arsenic, cadmium and lead, along with other metals, into the river.

It has appealed to the European Commission to block the Las Cruces project.

"Dumping heavy metals is prohibited by law but the regional government has approved it, so we've taken legal action in Brussels," said Antonio Ramos, an industrial engineer leading the Ecologists in Action campaign against the mine.

Inmet says it will filter waste water and remove the contaminating solids from it before discharging it. Those solids will then be sealed with clay above and below as a safe, long-term solution.

Inmet has obtained the permits it needs from the European Union and the Spanish and Andalusian regional governments which include strict limits on effluent from the mine.

"The important part of the whole process is that there is no latitude. If you apply for a permit you have to meet those criteria," Inmet's President and Chief Operating Officer Jochen Tilk told Reuters.

A mine that did not would be quickly closed down, he added.

Inmet said in its first quarter results statement earlier this month that it had increased the mine's target production by 9 percent to the current 72,000 tonnes a year and estimated operating costs at 0.39 euros or $0.47 a pound of copper.

Copper currently costs about $3.77 a pound.

The mine's average copper grade is 6.2 percent.

Andalusia suffered one of Spain's worst environmental disasters in 1998 when a zinc mine near the town of Aznalcollar spilled millions of tonnes of toxic sludge into the Guadalquivir river when a retaining dam slipped.

That mine was owned by Boliden (BOL.ST: Quote), then a Canadian and Swedish company, and threatened to contaminate the Donana national park, a major wetland area at the river mouth.

Inmet points out that its project will have no waste water tank so it would be impossible for a similar accident to happen.

AMP Section Name:Natural Resources
  • 183 Environment