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`Poison tunnel scandal' outrages residents of pristine Sweden

The veterinarian thought the cow lying in a pasture had been injured by a bull during mating. But he was looking at the first hint of an environmental scandal that has outraged Sweden.

A substance that causes nerve damage apparently infiltrated the groundwater after it was used in building a railway tunnel in Baastad. Cows have died after drinking from a local stream, and fish in area waters also are dying.The case may seem mild compared to environmental nightmares such as the 1984 toxic gas leak in Bhopal, India, or the 1970s chemical dumping at Love Canal. No people have died and no major cities have been affected.

But "poison tunnel scandal," as it is called in daily headlines, has appalled Swedes, who are profoundly attached to their vast expanses of woods and lakes and proud of how clean they have stayed while the nation industrializes.

It drew 6,000 people to a protest last week - a huge number for a remote section of a country where large demonstrations are unusual.

Preliminary tests on tunnel workers showed about a third had symptoms of nerve damage, although officials said it was too early to tell if the compound used in the tunnel was at fault.

And residents in Baastad, a small town along a sweeping bay 275 miles west of Stockholm, have been warned not to use the water. Local authorities also banned the sale of cooking fat derived from cattle who had drunk from surrounding streams.

People in the area hadn't been happy about the noise and disruption caused by the 5.5-mile tunnel the government rail administration and the Skanska construction company are building through a ridge outside Baastad.

They tolerated the headaches, however, until three weeks ago - when a farmer called the veterinarian to look at the cow lying in his pasture.

"I thought a bull had injured her, but she didn't have any marks on her back," veterinarian Arne Enstroem told the Swedish news agency TT.

The next day another cow was found with her back legs paralyzed, and Enstroem knew there was a serious problem. Both cows had drunk from a stream that included runoff from the tunnel. Both later died, as did a number of other cows.

Skanska, meanwhile, ran tests on waterways near the project and issued a cryptic statement saying that it had stopped using a sealing compound in the tunnel.

The compound, called Rhoca-Gil, contained high amounts of acrylamide, a substance known to cause nerve damage. The government ordered all work on the tunnel halted in early October, but by then 1,400 tons of Rhoca-Gil had been sprayed there.

Officials said vast amounts of the compound apparently had gone into the region's groundwater, where it would spread for years.

The scandal has eroded Swedes' trust in the government.

"Other countries have war and corruption. In Baastad we have the Rail Administration and Skanska," read one sign at last weekend's massive protest.

Where the ultimate fault rests is a political football likely to be kicked around for months.