By Richard Torné
Trump’s inaugural speech came as no surprise. It was a bombastic exercise in nationalist and religious sentiment, delivered with all the gusto of a crusading Chief-in-Command. Well, at least in his eyes.
Many understandably believe the planet will be in for a very rough ride in the coming years as a result of Donald’s election success, so Spain’s verdict on his inaugural speech was equally predictable: Trump is a big-screen villain who will scupper the Palomares clean up deal.
Given his woeful track record on environmental issues, his thin-skinned response to criticism, his ‘USA-first-at-the-expense-of-all-else’ mantra and his ambivalence towards Hillary Clinton, it’s reasonable to assume he will bin the much-hailed ‘statement of intent’, signed by both countries in October 2015, to remove all the contaminated soil from Palomares following the 1966 accident.
But if this happens, it would be wrong to lay the blame entirely at Trump’s feet. If we’ve learnt anything about the Palomares saga so far, it’s that apathy, ignorance and downright negligence have always been key factors in this sorry tale – and the Spanish are partly to blame for this.
If the 2015 deal eventually proves to be a false dawn it won’t be the first time this has happened. In February 2012, before the last US presidential election, Spain was assured by the Spanish foreign minister Jose Margallo that a deal of sorts had been struck with the US to remove all the contaminated soil (some 50,000 cubic metres, no less). “Clinton promises Margallo good news soon about Palomares”, screamed the headlines, but the press failed to point out that no joint statement was issued to confirm this (Clinton was noticeably absent when Margallo made the remark).
Seeking clarification, I contacted US embassy spokesman Jeff Galvin at the time. He revealed that Clinton had not said anything of the sort, but it was clear the Americans weren’t about to contradict Margallo’s comments, which were aimed mostly at a domestic audience.
It was said that Clinton, who was the US State Secretary at the time, wanted to resolve the matter before the elections in November that year. But November came and went and nothing happened. The agreement was put on hold, apparently because the US feared a precedent would be set if the clean up went ahead, as other countries affected by nuclear mishaps would seek similar deals – although this amounted to no more than a rumour.
It didn’t help matters when Palomares was kept off the agenda during an hour-long meeting in Washington between presidents Rajoy and Obama in January 2014.
By now, it should have dawned on everyone that the Spanish had once again been fobbed off with vague promises, but there were no major voices of dissent; no protest marches, and there was no political backlash against Margallo for having misled the public.
The latest ‘agreement’ in 2015 was billed as a major step forward, but it was filled with caveats. For a start, it was a non-legally binding ‘statement of intent’ – which is another way of saying it was not worth the paper it was written on.
There were clear disagreements, too, about who should pay for the cost of the operation, where the soil should be shipped to, and how it would be removed. A bizarre suggestion that a special road should be purpose built to transport the earth from Palomares to Cartagena did nothing to quell the suspicion that the Americans ‘were having a lark’.
A source from the environmental association Ecologistas en Acción once told me that at one of the crucial meetings between the two countries, the Spanish had come totally unprepared. He said the Americans took it as a sign that their counterparts weren’t really that serious about resolving the issue.
It may be an apocryphal story, but one only has to look at Margallo, who has spent far more time and resources over the last few years banging on about Gibraltar than he has about Palomares, to show how frivolous the Spanish have been in their approach to this particular conflict with a close ally.
And if the Spanish Government can be accused of not taking Palomares seriously enough, it is because it knows there is no effective pressure being applied to do otherwise. Even warnings that plutonium will in time degrade into the far more lethal americium have had little effect on the public, while many home-owners in the area are more concerned about the impact adverse publicity will have on the value of their properties.
Trump has yet to make a statement on Palomares, but if this is the best Spain can come up with at the negotiating table, we’re doomed.