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Inquiry ramps up into raw sewage illegally dumped in the sea or rivers by town councils

A file photograph of pollution in the water on Burriana beach in Nerja.
A file photograph of pollution in the water on Burriana beach in Nerja. / EUGENIO CABEZAS
  • Some councillors and officials in Nerja and Coín have been quizzed but they say it is the regional government's job to use money from locals' water bills to build new treatment plants

The minister for the Interior has confirmed that a judge has now taken over the investigation into some members, past and present, of two local councils and the dumping of untreated sewage in nearby waterways or the sea.

Fernando Grande-Marlaska, on a visit to Malaga on Wednesday, commented on the investigation, codenamed Operation Vastum, (from the Latin for waste dump). He said, "It's early days and we'll see what the outcome is."

The Guardia Civil's environmental protection unit, Seprona, has been leading an inquiry since November 2017 into some public officials, initially at Coín and Nerja councils and more recently extending into Alhaurín el Grande.

Wipes clog up a sewage outlet on the seabed.

Wipes clog up a sewage outlet on the seabed. / SUR

However, those quizzed so far, including some current and former mayors, have hit back saying that it isn't their town halls' job to treat waste if the Junta de Andalucía regional government hasn't provided the treatment plants to do it.

Fines for polluting

For several years, Spain has been fined by the EU for continuing to allow some of its councils to dump untreated waste. The current investigation stems from a complaint by green action group, Ecologistas en Acción, claiming that councils were committing fraud by adding a sewage-treatment levy to people's water bills even though no treatment was going on. The levy is passed on by the town halls to the Junta de Andalucía, which, the council officials say, should be getting on with putting in the missing treatment works.

In total, 16 mayors, former mayors, councillors and public officials in Nerja and Coín have been questioned by police. The complaint was originally against five local urban areas where waste went untreated, including Estepona and San Pedro, but with a new treatment plant now open at Guadalmansa, near Estepona, only three town halls are apparently now flouting a 2001 law for municipalities with populations over 15,000 that says they should have treatment plants in place.

Coín waste

In inland Coín, police say waste is being dumped in protected tributaries of the Pereilas river, causing "a lifeless area". Most towns and villages in the Guadalhorce valley, except Alhaurín de la Torre, dump waste from homes and businesses.

Former mayor of Coín for the PP party, Fernando Fernández-Tapia, who has now, ironically, taken on a role in the new Junta de Andalucía, said that in 2010 "the Junta promised 47 sewage treatment plants paid for by the water-bill levy. All town halls can do is wait".

The planned lower Guadalhorce treatment plant for Coín, which also would serve Pizarra and Álora, should go into test phase shortly, having been started in 2013.

Nerja's three outflow pipes

In Nerja, untreated sewage is still pumped into the sea at three points. Two pipes offshore opposite Burriana and Torrecilla beaches and one closer to shore near the Maro cliffs.

The current mayor of Nerja, Rosa Arrabal, of the PSOE said, "It's a municipal responsibility once the infrastructure is in place, but not before," saying she was surprised by the inquiry and that she would tell that to the judge if asked.

In Nerja, work on a treatment plant started in 2014 and it should have been up and running three years ago, however constructors' financial problems and differences within the council have stopped it coming into service, even through it is four-fifths finished.

The third phase of Operation Vastum, involving Alhaurín el Grande, is still in the early stages and has not yet been passed to a judge.