Mexico’s ‘worst environmental disaster in modern times’

Jen Wilton investigates the murky waters of an August 2014 chemical spill which is still rocking the boat in Mexico.

Grupo Mexico handing out drinking water in Sonora. © Grupo Mexico

On 6 August 2014, copper-producing company Buenavista del Cobre, a subsidiary of Mexico’s largest mining corporation Grupo Mexico, spilt 40,000 cubic metres of copper sulphate acid into public waterways near Cananea, in the northern Mexican state of Sonora. The toxic leak has affected seven communities, home to more than 24,000 people.

Mexico’s Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources Juan José Guerra Abud called the spill ;the worst environmental disaster by the mining industry in modern times’. The company reports that high concentrations of heavy metals, including iron, aluminium and zinc, were released in the copper sulphate solution. PROFEPA, Mexico’s federal environmental protection agency, estimates that environmental damage from the accident will cost more than $134m.

‘Buenavista del Cobre has created a 2bn peso ($148m) trust through an agreement with the federal government to cover the environmental repair programme and damages caused by the spill into the Bacanuchi and Sonora Rivers’, the company website states.

The company says it is ‘supporting the local communities by supplying water and, through public service channels that are available in all these communities, to quickly resolve any claims for material damages incurred as a result of the accident.’

However, some residents report that they have not received any assistance at all. Many people in the affected communities do agricultural and farming work, and they now have trouble selling their goods because of fears of contamination. This has knock-on effects for local vendors, who also report a drop in sales as there is less money circulating locally.

‘They are leaving us to die slowly’, says 53-year-old resident Jesús Francisco Salcido Morán, whose income has plummeted since the accident. ‘We have always been hard-working people, but we have reached the limit. I am desperate.’

Environmental regulator PROFEPA carried out preliminary assessments to gauge the extent of the damage to water, flora and fauna. Head of PROFEPA Guillermo Haro Bélchez says the spill will have long-term consequences, but that it will take time to assess exactly how the toxins behave in the affected waterways and soil. Grupo Mexico will be required to monitor the situation for years to come.

Risk to food chain

Alberto Rojas Rueda, head of environmental policy for Greenpeace Mexico, estimates it will take between 15 and 20 years to decontaminate the area.

‘This involves not only repairing the damage, but there are also a number of substances that are being left on the bottom and sides of the river, which will involve great expense to remove’, he says.

Rojas Rueda warns that over time the chemicals could enter the food chain, causing toxicity to animals and people.

Grupo Mexico initially blamed the toxic spill on higher than usual rainfall, but environmental authorities firmly point to faulty company equipment. Grupo Mexico subsequently said in a statement to the Mexican Stock Exchange that ‘one relevant factor of the accident was a construction defect in the seal of the pipe’ where the leak occurred.

PROFEPA said in an official report: ‘The pipe was open, without a control valve, such that the [waste water] flowed uncontrollably towards the stream.’ The toxic materials travelled almost 90 kilometres downstream.

‘The spill of the copper sulphate solution could put the integrity of the ecosystem at risk’, the report warns. ‘When a spill of dangerous substances remains unattended, it can cause persistent and increasing damage to the soil, subsoil, water and other natural resources.’

The Mexican state of Sonora is home to more than a quarter of Mexico’s mining activity, and is prolific in the production of gold, copper and graphite. Grupo Mexico is the world’s fourth largest copper mining company, with the largest copper reserves worldwide.

Grupo Mexico subsidiary Buenavista del Cobre is spending $3.4bn to expand its copper mining operations in the state of Sonora. As a result, annual copper production will double by early 2016. Grupo Mexico also has mining operations in the US, Peru, Chile, Argentina and Ecuador.

Record environmental liabilities in the US

In 2009, a US subsidiary of Grupo Mexico, ASARCO, paid out a record $1.79bn to settle hazardous waste claims across the US. The massive payout primarily funded environmental clean-up and restoration ‘from operations that contaminated land, water and wildlife resources on federal, state, tribal and private land’, reports the Environmental News Service.

‘The settlement resolves claims pertaining to past and potential future [clean-up] work performed at approximately 18 ASARCO-owned sites in 11 states’, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said of the case, $70m of which went specifically to ‘address a wide variety of environmental contamination, from arsenic to zinc.’

The EPA reports the funds will be used for ‘an estimated clean-up of at least 10.5 million cubic yards of contaminated soil, or enough to cover more than 1,960 football fields with three feet of dirt, and at least five million cubic yards of contaminated ground water, which is enough to fill over 1,500 Olympic size swimming pools.’

One of the largest settlement areas includes Tar Creek in Oklahoma, dubbed ‘one of the most polluted sites in the history of the US’. While ASARCO’s lead and zinc mine closed in 1970, the company left behind sand dune-like mounds of tailings, containing heavy metals.

Lead dust from the toxic waste has had a severe impact on the local community. In 1996, almost one-third of local children under the age of six were found to have dangerous levels of lead in their blood, which can severely affect mental and physical development. The town eventually had to be abandoned and the federal government spent $46m buying land from residents so they could move to safer areas.

As a result of its extensive environmental liabilities in the US, ASARCO filed for bankruptcy. ‘Under the agreements reached in the bankruptcy court, ASARCO is relieved of all the liabilities it incurred during its 100 years of operation’, say academics Lin Nelson and Anne Fischel of Evergreen State College, in Washington State, who have worked to document the stories of several communities affected by ASARCO mines.

‘This means that future costs to human health and the environment stemming from the impacts of ASARCO’s 100 years of operations will be borne by workers, families, communities and ultimately, by US taxpayers.’

A widespread problem in Mexico

In August 2014, shortly after Buenavista del Cobre’s major copper sulphate leak in Sonora, four other accidents associated with Mexico’s extractive industries made news across the country. In northern Mexico, 2,000 cubic meters of cyanide solution leaked at a gold mine in Durango, after heavy rain caused a tailings pond to overflow. More than 20,000 people were left without drinking water.

It is not just active mines that cause environmental damage; there are thousands of abandoned sites across Mexico, some of which still cause problems today. One of Grupo Mexico’s mines in Taxco, in the south-western state of Guerrero, was closed in 2009, but has left an ongoing legacy of toxic waste.

Mexico’s National Water Commission (Conagua) recently carried out a study to assess the long-term damage from the Taxco mine to soil and water. In September 2014, the agency reported that levels of arsenic and lead still exceed acceptable levels, concluding that ‘the pollution is caused by the tailings dams’. Land that should have been decontaminated by the company still cannot be used by local residents for other purposes, such as cultivating crops.

‘Currently in Mexico there is no law or norm that requires mining companies to carry out mine closure plans in a manner that is adequate, complete and financed in its entirety’, says Miryam Saade Hazin, a consultant for the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. Many communities are haunted by hazardous waste for decades to come after mines are closed.

Lack of accountability

Grupo Mexico’s track record also includes serious breaches of workplace safety. Eight years ago, a methane explosion at a coal mine belonging to Grupo Mexico subsidiary Industrial Minera México (IMM) claimed the lives of 65 miners. Operations at the mine, located in the northern Mexican state of Coahuila, were suspended indefinitely following the tragedy.

The United Nations International Labour Organization found that IMM had ‘clearly failed in its obligations as owner and operator of the mine, leading to this tragic loss of life’. An organization representing families of the deceased miners released a statement in August 2014, stating that to this day there has been ‘no reliable investigation, nor anybody sentenced, nor reparations for the damage’.

Today, while the Mexican government recognizes the enormous environmental consequences of the copper sulphate spill in Sonora, it has chosen to leave the Cananea mine open. Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources Guerra Abud said: ‘We cannot stop or slow down economic activity. We need to direct it, and we need to facilitate economic activity when it meets environmental standards.’

Instead of taking legal action against Grupo Mexico, the government has opted for a dispute resolution approach. Authorities have set obligations the company must fulfill, including providing $151m towards clean-up costs. The company could also face fines of more than $3m, a relatively small cost for a company that reported a net income of $1.7bn in 2013.

According to Rojas Rueda from Greenpeace Mexico, mine sites across the country would benefit from improved regulation and supervision.

He argues that if the Mexican government wants to prevent such toxic disasters in the future, ‘it should strengthen environmental laws and provide [PROFEPA] with more and better inspectors to make random inspections, particularly at the [tailings] dams associated with mines’.

‘As soon as you can hold members of a company the size of Grupo Mexico responsible for contamination like this, you can be sure they will stop doing those things’, Rojas Rueda says. ‘Today, because economic sanctions are for very small amounts, [the companies] do not care if they cause contamination.’

This article has previously been published at Revolution is eternal.