Pollution of soils by the toxic spill of a pyrite mine (Aznalcollar, Spain)

M. Simón, , I. Ortiz, I. García, E. Fernández, J. Fernández, C. Dorronsoro and J. Aguilar
Departmento de Edafología y Química Agrícola, Facultad de Ciencias, Universidad de Granada, C/Fuentenueva s/n, Campus Universidad, 18071 Granada, Spain


On 25 April 1998 the retention walls broke open in a pond containing the residues from a pyrite mine of Aznalcollar (southern Spain), spilling some 45Å~105 m3 of polluted water and toxic tailings into the Agrio and Guadiamar River basin, affecting some 55 km2. On 5 May, seven sectors in the affected area were studied, analysing tailings, polluted water, and contaminated as well as uncontaminated soils. The principal pollutants were: Zn, Pb, Cu, As, Sb, Bi, Cd and Tl. The range of total contamination of each element was extremely broad, as penetration of the tailings depended on the soil characteristics. Most of the Cu, Zn and Cd penetrated the soil in the solution phase of the spill, while the other elements penetrated mostly as part of the solid phase. Zn exceeded the maximum concentrations permitted by the international community in four of the seven sectors studied, As in three, and the other elements only in one sector. Drying and consequent aeration of the tailings rapidly oxidized sulphides to sulphates, lowered the pH and solubilized the pollutants. Therefore, future rains could aggravate the pollution problem, if the tailings are not quickly removed.

Author Keywords: Pyrite mine; Toxic spill; Heavy metals; Soil pollution