Zinc In Sludge From Spanish Reservoir Break Equals Mine's Annual Output, Researchers Find

River Water Almost As Acidic As Vinegar, Columbia Team Says

Researchers from Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory believe that the collapse last spring of a retaining wall holding tailings from a Spanish zinc mine has dumped an amount of zinc into rivers nearly equal to the mine"s total annual output.

The accident last April 25 at the Los Frailes zinc mine in Aznalcollar, about 50 miles south of Seville, released some 5 million cubic meters of acidic sludge into the Guadiamar River, which one week after the spill had an acidity approaching that of vinegar, the Columbia researchers say. Sludge in the Guadiamar also contaminated the Guadalquivir, the river that runs through Seville in southwestern Spain. The work was published in the Sept. 22 issue of EOS, the weekly journal of the American Geophysical Union.

Alexander van Geen, a research scientist at Lamont, in Palisades, N.Y., and Zanna Chase, a Columbia graduate student, measured the amount of zinc in water and sediments in the rivers downstream from the Los Frailes mine early last May. They concluded that the sludge released from the retaining pond may have contained as much as 120,000 tons of zinc, comparable to the mine's annual output of 125,000 tons, as well as high quantities of sulfates, contributing to the sludge's acidity.

At high concentrations, zinc, like many heavy metals, can be harmful to the environment, Ms. Chase said. Plants and nitrogen-fixing bacteria are particularly sensitive to zinc pollution, causing concern about possible crop losses. Algae also is affected negatively by excess zinc, she said, posing a possible threat to fish populations that depend on algae as a food source.

In wildlife studies since the mine accident, fish caught near the mouth of the Rio Tinto were found to be highly contaminated with zinc, Dr. van Geen reported. Wh

Contact: Faye Yates
(914) 365-8878
Columbia University

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