Illegal water pollution lands Spanish industrialist in jail Four-year sentence is unusual for Europe

April 20, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MADRID, Spain -- Spain is a country with a poor environmental record. It has stripped its forests, soiled its rivers and bays and paved its coasts. The government is often reprimanded and fined for violations of European environmental rules.

But a Spanish judge has done something out of the ordinary: He has sent a factory owner to prison for committing crimes against the environment. It is the first such punishment in Spain and decidedly an exceptional step in Europe.

The factory owner, Jose Puignero, who owns textile plants in three towns in northeastern Spain, entered jail last week after his appeal to the Supreme Court and pleas for a pardon from many influential people failed.

A Barcelona court found Puignero's company, Hilados y Tejidos Puignero SA, guilty of illegal dumping of chemical dyes and detergents into a river in the town of Sant Bartomeu del Grau. Because the illegal flows went on for several decades, the court said, local ground water and wells and the river Teg were seriously contaminated.

The charges against the industrialist were aggravated, the court said, because he repeatedly ignored government warnings. It found Puignero guilty of a "continuous crime against the public health and the environment."

He was sentenced to four years and fined close to $50,000. He had already paid close to $170,000 to repair environmental damage.

Lawyers said it was not certain if Puignero, 66, would have to serve the full sentence. He had tried to avoid going to jail by pleading poor health, but a court physician rejected this.

The company, which was founded 40 years ago, employs 2,300 workers, and their labor union has petitioned the government to pardon their employer. In effect, a broad movement is under way to press for Puignero's release, with petitions coming from several mayors, the local bishop, the Barcelona Chamber of Industrialists and the Employers Association.

One reason for the wide support is that Puignero is seen as a scapegoat. The region around Barcelona is one of Spain's most industrialized and most polluted areas, where factories have violated air and water standards for many years.

Jordi Pujol, president of the Catalonia region and one of Spain's most powerful politicians, has said he will not try to intervene in Puignero's case. Rather, he said, the sentence would serve as "an example."

Pub Date: 4/20/97

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