One year after the Zaldibar crime

 we know too much, but those responsible tell too little


By Martintxo Mantxo   (El Salto) (Argazkia; Dani Blanco / ARGIA)

One year has passed since the Zaldibar disaster. Although taking the proposal of the Basilian MAB (Movement of People Affected by Dams)1 when referring to Brumadinho2 and Mariana, we would do better to call it «the crime of Zaldibar» – because something that has its origin in negligence, that instead of investing, accumulates it in profits, in disregard for the population, workers and the environment, that being warned in spite of acting it ignores it, that does not obey inspections or alerts, that is allowed by the administration (until it happens what happens) can only be qualified as such. A «disaster» denotes something that occurred without human action, due to natural causes, or so it is understood. But the causes were, as we say, human, of exceeding the capacity of that landfill with very specific geological conditions. Because not only have they deceived us with the supposed waste treatment (in this and other ways) while they received our money, but also now we have had to invest huge sums in trying to repair part of the damage: about 27 million euros so far.

Let’s rewind. The Zaldibar crime occurred on February 6, 2020 when the overfull landfill at that site collapsed onto the A8 highway. The avalanche did not coincide with any cars passing by, so it did not involve any fatalities. However, it was above in the upper area of the dump, where two workers of the dump died: vanished Alberto Sololuze and Joaquín Beltrán. Despite knowing of their disappearance, their bodies were not found, in the case of the former until August 2020, at a depth of 23 meters. In the case of the latter, a year later he remains unfound. This meant that in the first few days there was hope of finding them, which dissipated as the days went by. For the families it was/is very hard to imagine their loved one(s) in that mess of garbage, earth and debris.

(Argazkia: Zaldibia Argitu)

Something to keep in mind is that this dump is located in terms of Zaldibar but it is a neighborhood of it, Eitzaga, which is actually about 5 km from the core. Meanwhile, Eitzaga is closer to the town of Ermua (just over one km) and Eibar (2.5 km). At the same time, this area is an area of high population density, with 50,000 inhabitants in that perimeter. And Eitzaga itself is a rural nucleus of few houses, which during the activity of the landfill was crossed by 200 trucks per day carrying all that garbage: 500,000 tons per year.

Once the collapse occurred, the traffic of dump trucks was repeated through the neighborhood, adding to the situation, continuous heavy traffic, spilling mud, waste and leachates, and also polluting with its fumes. The Basque Government estimated that 23,000 trucks would be needed to remove the waste from Zaldibar. Its destination is unknown, although it has been leaked that it could be Huelva3, which in all this nonsense adds even more to it: they could not have looked for a more distant site (954 kms)! We only know that the rest of the Basque municipalities refused to accept the waste from Zaldibar, which also says a lot about the degree of toxicity and also about how we want to assume our own problems. By May 6, 7,000 trucks had been checked.

press conference by Basque regional government’s representatives at the dump

The landfill was imposed on the municipality of Zaldibar. The first time it was raised in 1993 it was dismissed due to protests and local rejection, only to have its ban overturned in 1997 by the smallest vote.4 The PNV was always the biggest force in the consistory and the main promoter of the dump, until 2011 when EH Bildu won, the main oposser. In 1998 the Zaldibar town council approved to carry out consultations in the neighborhoods that were going to be affected by landfill projects, however it was never carried out. The 2002 regulatory change facilitated its permit in 2003. But it was not granted integrated environmental authorization until 2007. At that time there were already illegalities at another local landfill. Therefore, Verter Recycling, its manager, filled and overflowed the landfill in 13 years.

An industrial waste landfill with no measures in place

Because once the accident occurred, it became evident that that huge dump was hiding, something that for the nearby neighbors, due to the assiduity of the waste transport and the odors, they imagined, but that the rest of the population, submerged in the alleged solutions of incineration (Zabalgarbi in Bizkaia and now Zubieta in Gipuzkoa) and reducing the idea of waste management to them, we ignored of its existence. Then it was known that many of the industrial and construction wastes were transported to this dump. Those are the largest producers of waste, above households and others: 60% of what Zaldibar’s dump received was from industry and 20% from construction.

Thus Zaldibar received everything that was rejected in other landfills5, all kinds of industrial waste, from sludge from the Papresa paper mill in Errenteria, from the steel industry, paints and chemicals and even asbestos, all of them without contemplating any of the measures required by the regulations, any kind of treatment, or special storage in watertight tanks. However, Verter Recycling had a permit to receive asbestos granted by the Basque Government in 2016, although it was not approved to receive toxic waste. Thus 16,148 tons of asbestos6 were disposed of there, some of it without a license, but in any case, without any form of management and storage that would guarantee its safety and prevent spread and contamination.

(Argazkia: Zaldibar Argitu)

In 2011 for example, it was fined 33,000 euros for having stored 175 tons without authorization and without measures, waste containing PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls).7 PCBs are chemical compounds that were used for a multitude of purposes (lubricating oils, insulating resins, paints, waxes, sealants, coolants in electrical equipment, etc.) but when their risks to health and the environment were discovered, they were withdrawn from the market by 2010. As far as is known, despite having knowledge of this, there were no other inspections or measures taken to eliminate or store residues of this toxicity in an adequate manner.

But it also became public knowledge that the landfill and its manager, Verter Recycling, although it received large payments from the administration for taking care of this waste, the administration did not carry out sufficient inspections, and those that were carried out were of little consequence and were not followed up.

Shortly before the crime occurred, in November 2019, the Basque Government’s Department of the Environment, then headed by Iñaki Arriola, awarded the lowest environmental compliance rating to the Zaldibar landfill8. The reason was because there was «some non-compliance classified as significant or severe or an accumulation of non-compliances» but without establishing what they were and without proceeding to sanction it. It was only when the accident occurred that this department informed that they were proceeding to «open a file on the company».

It also transcended that as it was already evident with the incinerator business, and others, that in spite of being «garbage», this is a very profitable business, and Verter Recycling had prioritized the millions over everything else. The landfills of the Basque Autonomous Community receive 47 million euros a year for the waste received. In the case of Verter Recycling, another irregularity is that the accounts for the last few years are missing, the last one on record being from 2017. Being a company with two shareholders and only six workers, that year it recorded a net profit of 1,744,876 euros9.

Due to the high industrialization of the Basque Autonomous Community (BAC) the waste corresponding to it is very high: 3.78 million tons are of industrial origin (60% of all waste) of which 5% is hazardous, and 1.32 million tons from construction (21%) which contrast with those are urban waste, which despite focusing the debate of the conflict of resources, only account for 19% (1.2 million tons). Gorka Egia, in his book «Ekologista naiz baina… «10 also talks about this part of the equation that we often overlook: a Basque person produces 390 kilos of waste per year, but if we were to add the waste from commerce, we would reach 500 kg11 , and if we add the waste from industry, we would reach 1000 kg. Because this waste, corresponding to our economy, on which we depend, also corresponds to us. This is why the social debate should include more levels and aspects.

Society is fed up

Two days after the disaster occurred, on February 8, 2020, another new one took place: due to the movement of the waste, and obviously, being many of them flammable, and other factors, fires were started that were extinguished at different times but continued until February 2112. On all those days, the possible risk of smoke was also minimized.

Fires started 4 days after the land slide

It was on February 15, when the match between Eibar and Real Sociedad for the First Spanish League was about to be played, that the match was suspended due to the conditions. Then the inhabitants of the area confirmed their fears of the high toxicity of the fumes. Due to the afore mentioned highly toxic residues that were not contained, the fumes had high levels of dioxins and furans. These are persistent, cumulative environmental pollutants (POPs), considered by WHO to be highly toxic and cancer-causing. Once the high toxicity was known, social discontent was unleashed, because to all the other irregularities was now added the lack of institutional action, since it was not until February 14, five days later, that the population was not advised not to open windows and to limit being outside.

Another problem with the management of this disaster has been information. According to Ahoztar Zelaieta, author of the book «Zaldibar. Zona cero» (Txalaparta, 2020) «the Basque government has not provided information requested by the opposition and by society, in many cases not making it public until the media did so. In fact, it has hindered the informative process». Zelaieta alludes to another corruption case in which the PNV was involved, the De Miguel case13, to explain that in that case also «PNV and PSE prevented it from even being discussed in parliament».

In addition to the bad management and lack of will, there is a lack of personnel to control all the facilities, as there are only 8 inspectors to monitor the 13 landfills in the Basque Autonomous Community, a review that is carried out every one to three years, which is insufficient, and previous notice to the dumps. These 13 landfills are located 1 in Araba, 2 in Gipuzkoa and 10 in Bizkaia, and collect 36% of the 6.3 million tons of waste generated each year. Of these, 9 are private and 4 are public. In Bizkaia there are 3 others, such as the one in Zaldibar, for non-hazardous waste of industrial origin, all 3 of which are private.

Society, especially the affected community located near the landfill, demands justice, something that entails a slow process. The pre-trial process has started and will take another year, while the trial will take another 5 years. In October 2020 it was announced the configuration of a popular accusation in which Zaldibar Argitu and the Charter of Social Rights of Euskal Herria (Basque Country) are included.

Zaldibar Argitu is the local platform created after the crime and that, as its name in Basque indicates, seeks to shed light on it. Zaldibar Argitu has organized numerous acts of protest as soon as the accident occurred and afterwards, with at least one demonstration per month (it must be taken into account that in March restrictive measures were introduced to alleviate the pandemic, and that also at an informative level, this has taken away space from other information).

The EU is also following the case through the Commissioner for the Environment, Virginijus Sinkevicius, who raised the need to establish whether the Basque authorities had complied with their obligation to «monitor, detect and, ultimately, sanction» any possible non-compliance at the landfill.14

The responsibility of the administration has been little assumed, while from the administration the responsibility has been focused on the company, Verter Recycling, which has also caused great unease in society and especially in the affected area. In addition, current members of the institutions seem to be quite involved.

Cartoon by Tasio

One of the focus is on Iñaki Arriola of the PSOE, former mayor of Eibar between 1993 and 2008, and then from 2009 to 2012 councilor of the Basque government in the coalition with PNV, in charge of Housing, Public Works and Transport and Environment, Territorial Planning and Housing from 2016 to 2020. After the elections of July 2020 both parties repeated coalition, being Arriola appointed councilor of Territorial Planning, Housing and Transport. Thus, Environment was eliminated from his portfolio, but he remained in office.

As the researcher Ahoztar Zelaieta points out, it is striking that there has been no purge, but neither has there been any self-criticism. Zelaieta, who has investigated the plot, points to Arriola’s direct responsibility as Counsellor15 of the Environment when the accident occurred, but also because of his close ties with José Ignacio Barinaga, Verter Recycling’s owner. Arriola’s secretary when he was mayor of Eibar, Javier Sánchez, was a representative of Verter Recycling and was a shareholder of the company, together with Barinaga. It also draws attention to «the corporate relationship of the general director of Environment of the Provincial Council of Gipuzkoa, Mónica Pedreira Lanchas, was a director of a company created by a shareholder of Verter Recycling, and her brother, Iván Pedreira, was promoted to director of Environmental Administration16 of the Basque Government by Iñaki Arriola. And they have not given any interviews!»16 Arriola is also the president of the PSE (PSOE branch in the Basque Autonomous Community) and Barinaga’s son, Iñaki Barinaga, was a candidate for mayor of Zizurkil for the PSE.

(Argazkia: Zaldibar Argitu)

But in addition, as Zelaieta continues, the PNV, during all these years in the Basque Government17, got rid of (its) administrative responsibilities related to the management of hazardous waste: «When Josu Jon Imaz was as Basque Counsellor18 of Industry, he reduced institutional responsibilities to the minimum intervention,» Zelaieta adds. Thus the PNV relegated the control of landfills to its own managers, justifying the regulatory change with the aim of facilitating industrial development. Soon, Imaz would move from the regional government to private enterprise, to Repsol’s subsidiary, Petronor. Similarly, his predecessor in office, José Antonio Maturana, reached an agreement with the lindane manufacturers19 to exempt them from blame for their dumping in exchange for a derisory payment (4 million pesetas), «not in favor of the citizens or the environment, but in favor of the dangerous industry,» summarizes Zelaieta.

After a year and what they have had to handle, in addition to indifference and lack of information offered by the institutions, Leire Alberdi of Zaldibar Argitu, expresses that «citizens are concerned and angry about the seriousness of the irregularities that the event has visualized. From the institutions, the private company is again held responsible, but the lack of control of the activity makes the environmental department of the Basque Government guilty, but nobody has resigned». According to Alberdi, as a result, Zaldibar Argitu is «categorically opposed to this management model: waste management must be public and transparent, as it is unacceptable to continue feeding the clientelist network that exists among so many (landfills, Zubieta incinerator, Water Agency, politicians, real estate, etc.)». Alberdi says that «they are a fearsome mafia».

(Argazkia: Zaldibar Argitu)

Despite the clear responsibilities of the company and administration, this case also highlights a current reality: our consumption generates tons of waste and also shows that we do not know what to do and that it accumulates, exceeding our capacity with terrible consequences. As individuals we have to take this into account and change habits, propose another model and contribute to it from our consumption to a political stance.

U30 Aldaketaldia, one year on from Zaldibar

Larreko Mahia is the Social Roundtable for the Ecological Emergency created in the province of Gipuzkoa by different organizations and local unions in October 2019. Obviously, the pandemic affected the capacity to develop activities. For this 2021 Larreko Mahia planned a massive mobilization in all cities and towns of the province and remembering the year of the Zaldibar crime, under the name of U30 Aldaketaldia (30J – Time for Change)20, from demonstrations to bike marches, talks or tree planting.

(Argazkia: Zaldibar Argitu)

For Juanmi Galatas, one of its organizers, the climate emergency and our commitment to reverse it has a lot to do with waste, especially in the capital Donostia (San Sebastián) where, in one of its rural neighborhoods, Zubieta, they have built the incinerator. For Galatas it is clear that once built, it must now be fed, and that means abandoning any plan for ecological waste management (reuse, recycling). Galatas draws attention to the fact that if in the rest of the province «there has been a 14% reduction in rejection, that of Donostia has increased by 6%»21. In 2019 Donostia collected 53,000 tons of rejects which, as he puts it, «are a perfect fuel for the incinerator «21. Because per person, in Donostia 288 kg are produced while in the rest of the province, with systems in place, it is only 100 kg, with which «it is not possible to feed the incinerator».

Poster by the Movement against Incineration linking both Zaldibar and the incinerator (2020).

Kepa Olaiz, activist of Erraustegiaren Aurkako Mugimendua22 (Movement against Incineration) also participated in U30 Aldaketaldia. The Movement against Incineration in Gipuzkoa dates back to 2002 when plans for two incinerators in the province were approved. One of them was dismissed, and the other changed location, always being highly rejected. For Olaiz, the Zaldibar disaster revealed the lack of control in waste management, and for this reason they reject the fact that this management is in private hands «because it offers no guarantees».23 It recalls that without officially having started operating «the incinerator has already suffered 3 accidents, with fire in its transformers, and a spill that has contaminated a stream, Arkaitzerreka, destroying its entire ecosystem, so it does not bode well».24

For his part, one of the organizers of the activity in the town of Tolosa, Jon Irastorza, remarked that «in this we are all together, it is all part of the same model, the same plan, so we have to be clear that what we do not want for ourselves we cannot wish for others either. And nature and the Planet suffer in general when something like Zaldibar happens, so we must keep it in mind and act accordingly «25.

U30 Aldaketaldia in Tolosa

Leire Alberdi, from Zaldibar Argitu, concludes that «it is essential that public institutions assume a clear roadmap for the necessary energy, ecological and social transition and commit to clear contents in order not to repeat forms such as the one in Zaldibar».

The Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB) from Brazil has also shown its solidarity through one of its coordinators, Moisés Borges. MAB acted and acts both in Brumadinho (2019) and in Mariana (2015) in both cases helping the affected people and then helping them legally in the process of reparation and justice. Borges drew the parallel between these cases and that of Zaldibar, as all 3 were industrial waste dumps. However, for Borges this «is not a coincidence» because in both cases «due to negligence and the interests of capital, they use the waste, putting profit above Life, the lives of the workers, the hydrological basin and the environment, and allow it to break down. These ruptures are the decisions of these companies – they are not caused by themselves, nor are they caused by nature – they are crimes are violence against the population, against people and against nature «26.

2“Zaldibar, un año después de Brumadinho”

5Transportistas aseguran que en Zaldibar los residuos tóxicos se ocultaban bajo la tierra mezclados

8Arriola no sancionó al vertedero pese a conocer las deficiencias

11Pertsonako 520 kilo inguru hondakin sortzen dira urtean, gero eta gehiago

15Equivalent to regional minister

16 Telephone interview with Ahoztar Zelaieta, February 1, 2021

17Every year since the end of Franco’s regime and the establishment of the monarchy, from 1980 to the present, with the exception of the 2009-2012 legislature in which the PSE-EE (PSOE) governed.

18Equivalent to regional minister

19 lindane or lindane, hexachlorocyclohexane used as an insecticide for which it was also banned in 1991 for being harmful to health and the environment, for being persistent and carcinogenic because it contains the isomer ɤ-hexachlorocyclohexane.

21Interview conducted on February 2

23Interview conducted on January 31

25 Conversation held on January 30

26Videoconference held on January 31:

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