Time to clean up the Mediterranean's most toxic bay

Getting rid of just 10 percent of the pollution in Murcia's Portmán inlet will cost 120 million euros

Manuel kneels down on the black sand and scoops a bit up in his hands. "Look how it sparkles," he says. "That's the mineral that's still left in it." He strolls down the beach of Portmán Bay in La Unión, Murcia. What was once a magnificent natural harbor used by the Romans is now the biggest outdoor dump of mining refuse in Spain. Thirty-three years of spoil from the mine where Manuel used to work filled the bay (up to 14 meters deep) and caused the shoreline to recede 12 kilometers. It may well be the biggest environmental disaster in the Mediterranean. Yet 20 years after the dumping stopped, the bay continues to be covered in waste, without any solutions in sight.

Santiago Guillén, a retired technical mining engineer from La Unión, knows how hard it is to understand how this could happen. "In 1957, the French company Peñarroya applied for a permit to install one of the biggest floating wash plants in the world here," he says. Silver, gold, pyrite and other minerals had all been mined in La Unión since Roman times. But Peñarroya was a whole different story. "A monster," says Santiago.

"Around 40,000 tons of mining sludge went into the bay every day"

The veins were poor, so the company decided to blow up huge chunks of land and treat it with chemical agents in the wash plant to separate the minerals. Only a tiny part had any value. The rest - dirt mixed with the reaction agents and remains of lead, zinc, cadmium and a kind of brownish-grey sludge - was dumped into the bay. "Around 40,000 tons a day went into the Mediterranean," says Santiago.

Almost every month, it was necessary to move "the tap", as they called the pipe that dumped the waste, because it had eaten up the sea. The fishermen, the only ones who complained, got 25,000 pesetas (about 150 euros) in indemnity and a marina berth in Cabo de Palos, a few kilometers to the east.

The town of La Unión filed a lawsuit against the dump, but it could not do anything about the permit issued during the Franco regime. The Supreme Court ruled that the "national interest" of operating the mine, which produced 20 percent of the silver and 70 percent of the lead on the mainland, was greater than the town's interest in protecting its bay. Thus, one of the biggest environmental tragedies on the Mediterranean continued to occur until 1990. The mayor of La Unión, Francisco Bernabé, defines the dump as "the Auschwitz of the environment." The town hall is located in a beautiful modernist building, a legacy of the rich city that La Unión used to be.

Luis Martínez, the former president of Peñarroya's workers' committee and a mechanic at the mine for 25 years, calls for understanding: "Back then, people didn't realize how serious it was. The mine meant 400 jobs and nobody complained. It was controlled by the Rothschild Bank. They made a fortune and no one asked them to do any explaining." What Martínez does not understand is why the situation hasn't changed in the last two decades. "To think that they've fixed the Prestige and the Aznalcóllar spill and this is still the same..."

In 1989, when Greenpeace had already chained up the taps, Peñarroya sold the entire plant - six million square meters - for a tiny sum: one peseta per square meter. Martínez explains: "Spain was in the European Community by then. They realized that they'd have problems with the principle of he who pollutes pays, so they sold it." It was bought by Portmán Golf, a local developer, which hoped to build there someday. Peñarroya's fears were unjustified: in 1993 the courts acquitted it of a crime against the environment, because the dumping had been done with a permit.

So far, the administration has presented three plans to recover Portmán, the last of them in 2006 when Cristina Narbona was environment minister. It aims to remove 10 percent of the 58 million tons of waste, at a cost of 120 million euros. The goal would be to recover the sheet of water in the middle of the bay (only on the surface).

This plan is now waiting for an environmental impact statement, for the University of Murcia to complete a pioneer study about how to remove heavy metals using limestone, and for the Murcian regional government and the Public Works Ministry to give up its plans to install a container terminal in El Gorguel, just 700 meters away. Francisca Baraza, head of the Spanish coastal department for the Murcia region, admits that the two projects are incompatible. "It doesn't make much sense to spend 120 million euros if there's going to be a huge port right nearby."

Meanwhile, the Portus Magnus (Great Port) of the Romans remains a bad joke. At the old yacht club, the moorings are surrounded by solid ground. A sign on the wall reads: "This is the most humble club on the entire coast, waiting for the funds to let the sea in."