Dead fish wash up in river in Spain after waste plant fire

A river in Spain was littered with dead fish on Thursday, a day after a huge blaze engulfed a nearby industrial waste disposal plant near Barcelona, local officials said.

Dead fish wash up in river in Spain after waste plant fire
The fire caused an environmental emergency in the Rio Besos Archive photo: AFP

“Some of the water used to extinguish the fire has reached the Besos river, greatly affecting its fauna,” the Catalan Water Agency which manages water resources in the northeastern region of Catalonia said in a statement.

The agency said it had declared a state of emergency “to be able to act in the basin of the Besos river”, which flows into the Mediterranean.    

Spanish television showed images of people collecting dead carp and eels from the river, as well as of fish lying on their sides in shallow water, struggling to breathe.

“The phenomenon is not widespread but we found many dead specimens scattered between the site of the fire and the mouth of the river,” the statement said.

Officials from the water agency were taking samples of water and sediment from the river to assess the extent of the damage.   

The agency said the “recovery of the affected stretch of river” would be done “in a natural way” but could not estimate how long this could take.   

Nearly 30 teams of firefighters were deployed to tackle the blaze, which broke out before dawn on Wednesday at a firm that recycles solvents and industrial waste in Montornes del Valles, some 15 kilometres (10 miles) northeast of Barcelona, sending vast plumes of black smoke into the air.   

The regional civil protection service threw up a security cordon around the area, and urged local residents to stay at home with their windows closed for several hours.

Green group Ecologists in Action noted that it had previously warned of the dangers the plant posed.

It said the impact of the water used to put out the blaze on the river's biodiversity was “very serious”, coming after serious efforts were made to restore its fauna.


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Police operation targets illegal water tapping in Spain

More than 130 people were arrested or placed under investigation for illegal water tapping last year, Spain’s Guardia Civil police said on Wednesday following a huge operation.

Police said most of their operations took place “in fragile and vulnerable areas such as the Doñana natural park”
Police said most of their operations took place “in fragile and vulnerable areas such as the Doñana natural park” in Andalusia. Photo: CRISTINA QUICLER / AFP

During the year-long operation, “133 people were arrested or investigated for extracting water through more than 1,533 illegal infrastructure devices”, the police’s environmental unit said in a statement.

A similar operation in 2019 had targeted 107 people.

Spain is one of the European countries most at risk from the impact of drought caused by global warming, scientists say.

Water usage issues are often at the heart of heated political debates in Spain where intensive agriculture plays an important role in the economy.

Police said most of their operations took place “in fragile and vulnerable areas such as the Doñana natural park” in the southern Andalusia region, one of Europe’s largest wetlands and a Unesco World Heritage bird sanctuary.

They were also operating in “in the basins of Spain’s main rivers”.

In Doñana, police targeted 14 people and 12 companies for the illegal tapping of water for irrigation, a police spokesman said.

Ecologists regularly raise the alarm about the drying up of marshes and lagoons in the area, pointing the finger at nearby plantations, notably growing strawberries, which are irrigated by illegally-dug wells.

“The overexploitation of certain aquifers for many reasons, mainly economic, constitutes a serious threat to our environment,” the Guardia Civil said.

The European Court of Justice rapped Spain over the knuckles in June for its inaction in the face of illegal water extraction in Donana which covers more than 100,000 hectares (250,000 acres) and is home to more than 4,000 species, including the critically endangered Iberian lynx.

According to the government’s last official estimate, which dates back to 2006, there were more than half a million illegal wells in use.

But in a 2018 study, Greenpeace estimated there were twice as many, calculating that the quantity of stolen water was equivalent to that used by 118 million people — two-and-a-half times the population of Spain.

Spanish NGO SEO/Birdlife also on Wednesday raised the alarm about the “worrying” state of Spain’s wetlands.