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Madrid City Hall's pollution denier

Married to ex-PM José María Aznar, for whom ecology is the "new communism," Ana Botella now finds herself as Madrid's environment chief facing illegal levels of toxic nitrogen dioxide

"The planet is at the service of the human being, because humans are at the center," according to Ana Botella. This anthropocentric view of the world may help explain why Madrid's city environment chief has monumentally failed to tackle the capital city's dire pollution problem.

Botella has hit the headlines over past weeks for acknowledging the illegal levels of the toxic gas nitrogen dioxide present in Madrid's air for the first time.

She took the City Hall post for the conservative Popular Party in 2007. Historically, Botella has repeatedly denied the problem. During a City Hall meeting in 2008 at a time when the authorities were warning Madrid residents against exercise in the open air due to dangerous pollution levels, she tried to reassure citizens. "There are two types of particles, those produced by men, that are dangerous, and natural, that have come from Africa."

As well as blaming pollution levels on an African dust cloud, Botella's department strategically re-located pollution monitoring stations to places on the outskirts or in parks. But the 2010 average still put Madrid 10 percent over the EU legal limit. Perhaps she shares the suspicious view of environmentalism put forward by her husband of 33 years, former Prime Minister José María Aznar, with whom she has three children. He has disdainfully labeled ecology the "new communism."

Botella's failure to act has drawn the ire of Ecologists in Action, who are preparing to sue City Hall for failing to introduce any measures to reduce car use.

The oldest of 13 siblings, Botella was born in Madrid in 1954. Defining herself as a traditional conservative, she has had a life-long involvement with the ultra-conservative Catholic Legions of Christ and is actively anti-abortion.

Last month, Botella opened proceedings against the organization that runs Gay Pride for illegal noise levels, handing it a 35,000-euro fine. Toni Poveda, president of the State Federation of Lesbians, Gays, Transsexuals and Bisexuals, has accused Botella of "homophobia," claiming that the politician has "been trying to bring down Gay Pride for years."

Another controversial statement from Botella last September laid the blame for dirty streets at the feet of homeless people. She also takes a dim view of graffiti, and has upped the minimum fine from 300 euros to 1,500 euros. This earned her a touching tribute from a group calling themselves the "Ana Botella Crew." In honor of the environment chief's birthday, the graffiti gang stuck large photographs of right-wing celebrities like Berlusconi, Sarkozy or PP Valencia Mayor Rita Barberá onto the walls of Madrid and other cities. They have also pasted her photo on statues throughout the city.

Mayor Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón has remained loyal to his embattled official. He has announced that she will run as his "number two" in upcoming local elections on May 22.

The battle for clean air

Madrid has broken EU air pollution limits, year after year. But 2010 was Brussels' implementation deadline. And in 2010 the annual average of toxic nitrogen dioxide (NO2) was 44 micrograms per cubic meter, 4mg over the limit. In previous years, levels have exceeded the limit by as much as 30 percent.

Botella has acknowledged that air pollution levels are now illegal. But she insists that in order to give Brussels what they want "we would have to reduce traffic by 50 percent, which does not seem possible at the moment." Instead, Botella plans to request a moratorium.

Socialist councillor Pedro Santín criticized the council's lack of action to rein in car use. "There has not been a single measure to reduce traffic, which is responsible for 80 percent of NO2, except moving the pollution monitors from contaminated areas to parks," he said. Environment minister Rosa Aguilar accused City Hall of burying its head in the sand. She described the "terrible air quality" as "very worrying" for the health of Madrid's four million residents.

In his defense, Madrid's mayor Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón said the capital had complied with all pollution parameters except NO2 and blamed levels on government tax breaks on diesel.

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