Located at the southernmost tip of the Iberian Peninsula, the Spanish region of Andalusia is one of its largest and most vibrant assets. With its idyllic beaches bringing in nearly 30 million tourists a year, and its agricultural industry exporting fruits and olives around the world, it relies as much on its beauty as it does its productivity.

It is also home to half of the country’s mining product by value, with the Huelva district’s deposits of copper, silver, gold and other minerals mined since 3000BC. So sought after were the mining rights for the district, that in 1873, a syndicate of industrialists purchased all the rights to mining production for £3,680,000 and founded Rio Tinto.

While mining continues to play an active role in Huelva, its future in the neighbouring district of Seville hangs in the balance. Recent plans unveiled by the government would see mining activity return to the area in order to tackle an unemployment rate where an estimated one in three people is out of work. However, much of the local community and many environmental and political groups oppose the opening up of the area to mining on environmental grounds.

Whether or not mining will return to the area will centre on whether the proposed plan to restart operations at the Los Frailes mine the town of Aznalcóllar is able to overcome the disaster that occurred there 17 years ago and came to be known as ‘the worst environmental disaster’ ever in Spain.

Environmental destruction strikes Andalusia

On 25 April 1998, with the site under the control of Swedish mining firm Boliden, a large tailings dam suffered a rupture and sent five million cubic metres of acidic sludge, containing arsenic, zinc lead and copper, into the Guadimar River, causing huge environmental damage.

In the early aftermath of the spill, 25,000kg of dead fish were collected with the homes and habitats of thousands of nearby birds destroyed, killing many chicks and adult birds. Years after clean-up operations had begun, the impact on the wildlife population remained, with deformed and stillborn chicks becoming commonplace in an area that relied heavily on biodiversity on both reputational and economic terms.

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Environmental activists, farmers and Gomeroi Elders have employed a range of tactics.

The level of damage caused by the spill caused fierce public anger and threatened to wreak economic disaster on local tourism and the agricultural industry. While the government promptly launched legal action against the operator in order to seek damages it also ploughed €90m into cleaning up the damage and a further €360m into taking the landscape back to its previous glory that had enabled the region to become one of Europe’s most idyllic locations.

Over the 17 years that have now passed, the environmental resurrection has proved successful with tourists once again flocking to the area the RSPB calls "Europe’s most precious bird sanctuary". Less successful has been the attempt by the government to seek recompense from the company held responsible. Despite a ruling from the Spanish Supreme Court that stated Boliden should pay€43.7m to cover part of the costs incurred by the clean up, the company, which continues to operate, is yet to pay anything.

Government vows to learn from the past

Now, however, mining activities at Los Frailes are once again on the horizon. In December, Junta president Susana Diaz announced that the government would offer a total of 367 new mineral rights across the region, opening up an area of 250,000 hectares for mineral exploitation. Speaking as she unveiled the plans, Diaz said: "We have significant growth potential. Andalusia will not miss any opportunities for investment and job creation by ensuring the safety and sustainability of the new mining has to be a sector of the century, modern and responsible but with great potential for growth and job creation."

As part of the programme to boost mining activity, the government announced that a tender process to operate Los Frailes had been won by a consortium led by Mexican mining firm Grupa Mexico and would create 450 jobs for local people. Mindful of the past disaster at the site, both the government and the operator have stressed that action has been taken to ensure there is no repeat.

"Mindful of the past disaster at the site, both the government and the operator have stressed that action has been taken to ensure there is no repeat."

The government has stated that as part of the agreement, protected zones, covered by the status of a UNESCO World Heritage site, would not be affected by operations and the area used for operations will be returned to its original state once work has been concluded. Further it stated that there would be no new tailings dam constructed as part of the project and that the accumulation of toxic residue would be prohibited.

A statement from Grupo Mexico, said: "Our team has worked tirelessly for more than a year to present the best project with the biggest environmental guarantees. The project, designed to be a benchmark in global mining, analyses each environmental challenge and turns them into innovative solutions. Through a ‘bubble’ model of underground mining, impacts on the environment and landscape will be eliminated."

Environmentalists seek to wrestle away support

Such promises of strict environmental stewardship and rehabilitation of the area once operations are complete have been met with skepticism from those who have seen them broken before. In 2000, environmental and animal welfare group WWF Spain was awarded the Andalucia Environmental Prize by the government in large part for its work in helping to restore the wetlands and repair the damage caused in 1998.

Feeling that its work may well prove to have been in vain if operations return, the group heavily criticised the decision. Juan José Carmona Moreno, head of WWF Spain’s programme for the region, said: "The reopening of Aznalcóllar is bad news, a black day for Andalusia’s environment. The Andalucían government has shown it has little environmental sensitivity and even less memory. We are seriously concerned that the management of residues and contaminated water left by the previous mine operator has been put in the hands of a company with a history of contaminating"

Ecologists in Action, which represents more than 300 different ecological groups in Spain, accused Susana Diaz of playing politics with the decision, and attempting to rush it through in order to promise jobs ahead of the upcoming election that could see her unseated. "Ecologists in Action expresses its absolute mistrust of Grupo Mexico and the electioneering politics, based on false promises of employment without environmental guarantees," the group said. "Once again, it shows that the Andalucían government has not learnt from the Aznalcóllar disaster in 1998."

An unclear future for Los Frailes

Whether or not mining operations restart at Los Frailes is a question of what is valued most. The government and many from the local community are desperate to grasp an opportunity to create new jobs in an area severely damaged by unemployment and believe that a more robust approach to minimising the environmental risks makes it a risk worth taking. On the other side, environmentalists and locals passionately campaign that any risk of a recurrence of the 1998 disaster is too big a gamble.

If passed, a new EU law will help to put an end to the use of ‘conflict minerals’ in EU manufacturing.

As things stand, the government has the upper hand. With the contract awarded and Grupa Mexico preparing to establish operations, the mine is set to reopen. But the campaign against the reopening remains confident of its ability to reverse the decision, and such success is far from unprecedented.

In Greece, where unemployment and economic hardship has hit even harder, the government recently withdrew approval for the final construction phase of a gold mine at the Skouries Project from Hellas Gold. In a battle that has raged since 2011, and featured violent clashes when protesters raided the site in objection to the project, the operator has spent the majority of the time with the governments backing. However, despite public desperation for jobs, long term concerns about the environment and the stability of mining as an industry appear to have swung the balance of power against the project.

The future of Los Frailes is unclear, but the options are anything but. Bring mining back and risk further environmental damage, or prize the environmental and economic value of the area above all else.