The 23-year saga of providing Nerja with a water treatment facility made headlines again last month when television viewers were treated to images of untreated sewage being dumped in the sea off the coast of the municipality. Video images taken underwater last summer by divers from the Spanish Institute of Oceanography supported claims that around nine tons of baby-wipes are now lying on the sea bed. Reports suggest that piles of waste up to three metres high and 20 metres in diameter have formed at the end of one of the three outlets into the sea.

Construction of the town’s new water treatment facility finally began in 2014 with a budget of €23.24 million from central government funds and an estimated completion time of 30 months. Work was halted in July 2017 by the breakup of the consortium which won the contract for the project but resumed in February last year. Now, three years after its planned completion, Nerja faces another summer season without a treatment plant and adequate sewage disposal.

Meanwhile, the municipality’s waste water will continue to be discharged directly into the sea at three points. Two underwater pipes off Burriana and Torrecilla beaches end about a kilometre from the coast, while the third ends two metres above sea level on the Maro cliffs, about 700 metres from the Natural Park. Environmentalists claim this practice has destroyed flora and fauna, including half of a colony of protected molluscs.

In 2017, following complaints by Ecologists in Action, an investigation was ordered by the Prosecutor and is being undertaken by Seprona, the environmental arm of the Guardia Civil. It is understood that Operation Vastrum (Latin for “spill”) has already interviewed Nerja’s present mayor Rosa María Arrabal and former mayor José Alberto Armijo, along with past and present councillors plus a number of others.

Sixteen charges against two municipalities, Nerja and Coín, have been listed alleging crimes against the environment. Representatives from Coín were questioned in December, while an investigation into complaints against a third municipality, Alhaurín el Grande, is still in its documentary phase..

Ecologists in Action have also pointed to a possible fraud. Since 2011, regional legislation has allowed town halls to charge residents a fee for sanitation as part of each household’s annual IBI payment. Although the amount goes finally to the Junta de Andalucía, the ecologists say municipalities without the necessary infrastructure to purify waste water could be charging the fee illegally.

In response to the publicity generated following television and press reports about the investigation last month, Nerja Town Hall issued a lengthy statement outlining the long history of the municipality’s efforts to build a water treatment centre and the problems which have been encountered. These date as far back as 2002 but the town hall points out that, since then, there have only been three times when sea bathing was prohibited, and then for short periods. It adds that health authorities have annually qualified Nerja’s coastal waters as “suitable for bathing, and in most cases, excellent.”

In the meantime, the project has been subject to further delays. While the plant itself and the two pumping stations at Burriana and the mouth of the Chillar river are almost complete, none has yet been connected to the electricity grid. Unsurprisingly, no-one is presently suggesting when the facility might be finally operational.