Junta admits raw sewage leak days before beach closure

The regional government has backtracked on earlier claims and quietly admitted it knew the local water company was pumping raw sewage into the sea just days before an outbreak of toxic algae forced beaches to close this summer.

The environment ministry now says that on June 13 a break in the main sewage pipe to the Villaricos treatment plant forced Galasa to pump 216.000 litres of untreated sewage straight into the Villaricos sea over 46 hours. The company notified the authorities on June 15 when the pumping ended.

A similar incident nine months earlier saw 179.000 litres of raw sewage dumped. It is not known why the Galasa report was not made public before now.

In early July the ministry had denied to reporters that any dumping had taken place.

A “toxic bloom” in June of this year closed three major beaches in Villaricos, Palomares and Vera. An algae called Ostreopsis which causes respiratory difficulties in humans started to grow along the beach, and 95 people needed medical attention over the following days. The cause of the outbreak has not been officially established.

CA News contacted Professor Paul Hunter, an independent health expert from the University of East Anglia, who said a combination of a sewage spill and high water temperatures could create the “perfect storm” needed for a toxic algae outbreak.

The government statement came after requests for information from local residents association Veraplayaazul could no longer be ignored. The association called the admission “alarming”.

In a statement, Veraplayaazul said that “nobody is saved here, by admission of the government. The sewage and desalination plants in Cuevas, Palomares, Villaricos and Vera are all pouring stuff into our sea with little control”.

Minister Antonio Martínez said that the dumping was in accordance to the law in an emergency situation.

He said “This was not harmful to humans or sea life. My department has carried out its legal responsibilities and water control checks showed nothing alarming. The law was respected at all times”.

Routine seawater quality checks on June 16 and July 6 showed “no action needed” on microbiological results for E. Coli and similar, although algae was visually detected in both checks. It appears no other tests were carried out until tourists starting falling ill. No checks for Ostreopsis were carried out until June 23, the same day the beaches were closed.

The Junta has no laboratory facilities to test for the presence of algae and the samples had to be sent to a laboratory in Madrid.

The results of water quality tests were not the main factor in the government’s decision to close and reopen the beaches. The ministry has said that “fundamentally, we used the fact that nobody had fallen ill over various days as the main factor [in our decision]”.

A leaked copy of the official test results obtained by this paper shows that levels of the algae were much higher when the beaches were reopened than when they were closed.

The Minister also admitted that the sewage treatment capacity of this region is insufficient and “a pending task”.

Veraplayazul says it is preparing a complaint to the public prosecutor for the environment on the matter. Over the few years the association has taken “many photos” showing the effects of dumping raw or partially treated sewage into the sea.

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