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ENVIRONMENT

Spanish businessmen go on trial over quake-linked offshore gas project

Two businessmen went on trial Monday over their involvement in a large offshore gas storage project blamed for causing hundreds of small earthquakes off Spain’s eastern coast in 2013.

A platform, part of the Castor Project, located in the Ebro Delta off the coast of Alcanar caused hundreds of small earthquakes. Photo: LLUIS GENE/AFP
A platform, part of the Castor Project, located in the Ebro Delta off the coast of Alcanar caused hundreds of small earthquakes. Photo: LLUIS GENE/AFP

Operations at the plant, a giant underwater storage facility in the Gulf of Valencia, were suspended in September 2013, just months after it opened, following several hundred quakes which experts said were likely linked to the gas pumping process.

Known as Project Castor, the plant was built to store gas in a depleted oil reservoir 1.7 kilometres (one mile) under the Mediterranean which would have been sent to Spain’s national grid by pipeline.

The trial opened on Monday at a court in the Valencia region, with the pair accused of “crimes against the environment” linked to the absence of exploratory studies on seismic activity in the area.

If convicted, they could face up to six years in prison, according to court documents seen by AFP.

Both are senior executives at Escal UGS, which is two-thirds owned by Spanish construction giant ACS. They were indicted in 2015.

A dozen environment ministry officials were also charged but the case against them was dropped after no evidence was found of irregularities in granting a permit for the project, which was funded by the European Investment Bank.

Owned and operated by Escal UGS, the plant was built with a capacity for 1.3 billion cubic metres of gas — enough to supply the Valencia region and its five million residents for three months.

But when work to pump in the gas started in June 2013, the quakes began, prompting protests by environmental groups and local residents, with the government suspending its operations in September of that year.

The court accused Escal UGS of not carrying out a study on seismic activity in the area and of delaying the suspension of gas-pumping activities even after the consequences were known, creating “a dangerous situation which was potentially catastrophic”.

At the time, Escal claimed that seismic activity in the area did not meet the threshold for requiring a study.

In 2014, the Spanish government paid out 1.35 billion euros ($1.57 billion) in compensation to Escal UGS for not being able to operate the facility although the payment was overturned by a court three years later.

In May 2017, the government announced the definitive closure of the plant after scientific studies concluded there was a probable link between the quakes and the storage plant.

The trial is expected to run until November 15th.

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ENVIRONMENT

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.

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