Home | Columns, Commentary and News | Reports | Links | About/Contact

Feature 090814 FNS-pollution

Monday, September 8, 2014

Mexican Bodies of Water, their Environs and Denizens All at Risk

Frontera NorteSur

Toxic soups seeping into rivers and groundwater. Millions of dead fish stinking up a large lake. A marine mammal on the verge of extinction.


Such are the scenes that ravage the waters of the Mexican Republic.


For starters, an August 16 oil spill from a pipeline located about 20 miles east of the northern industrial city of Monterrey contaminated the San Juan River and local acequias, or irrigation ditches, killing aquatic and other species and threatening human health. The disaster fouled about four miles of the San Juan River and seven miles of acequias in the rural municipality of Cadereyta. At least one water well was reportedly contaminated by oil.


Cadereyta Mayor Emeterio Arizpe estimated that 97 agricultural producers could lose more than US$3 million from the loss of irrigation water because of the contamination. Within the affected zone, more than 2,500 acres of citrus crops are cultivated.


The national oil company Pemex, which operates the pipeline, declared that 90 percent of the pollution from the spill was cleaned up by August 28. But a Nuevo Leon state legislator criticized the clean-up, while cautioning about the short-term and long-term health impacts of the spill.


“Some residents have already started to have headaches, abdominal pain and nausea,” said National Action Party (PAN) lawmaker Blanca Lilia Sandoval de Leon, who visited the area hit by the spill. Sandoval, who also works as a medical doctor for the Autonomous University of Nuevo Leon, told a session of fellow lawmakers that cancer, lead poisoning, leukemia and other illnesses could result from the environmental calamity.


The legislator charged that hundreds of local residents who were contracted to help clean up the spill were not provided with the proper training or appropriate protective gear.


Paid about $125 per week for their labor, the workers were hired by the private Basa Company, which in turn was contracted by Pemex to carry out the clean-up.


Nuevo Leon state lawmaker Francisco Treviño Cabello also criticized Pemex, blasting the company for not publicizing the spill until four days after it occurred.


“They did not want this known so as not to cause alarm, but more people could have been affected,” said Treviño, who formerly headed the Nuevo Leon office of the Federal Attorney General for Environmental Protection (Profepa).


“If people were not warned on time, it makes one think poorly, that perhaps they are hiding something. Maybe they wanted to hide the magnitude of the spill, the source of the damage.”


The Nuevo Leon state congress has formed a special commission with agricultural producers to defend the interests of the communities affected by the oil spill.


On September 4, Nuevo Leon Governor Rodrigo Medina visited Cadereyta to inspect the extent of environmental damage. Medina urged Pemex to finish cleaning up the pollution within a 10-week period.


Less than two weeks after the San Juan River incident, gasoline from a Pemex pipeline poured into the Hondo River in the gulf coast state of Veracruz. The August 28 spill contaminated a shorter stretch of river than in the Cadereyta disaster, but still killed eels, turtles, fish, rabbits and other animals, according to Franco Osorio, public safety director for the municipality of Tierra Blanca.


Though Pemex declared that the pipeline had been quickly repaired and upwards of 60,000 gallons of gasoline removed, the spill spread a big stench, caused a temporary road closure, and forced farmers and ranchers to move their animals away from a now- contaminated waterway.


“We are standing on a bomb,” an environmental remediation worker said. “One spark and it goes up.”


The eco-disasters in Veracruz and Nuevo Leon were both blamed on illegal extractions from pipelines. Robberies of Pemex oil and gas have become an important source of revenue for the Zetas and other organized criminal groups.


In Veracruz, local residents and workers for GeoClean, the private company contracted by Pemex to clean up the Hondo River mess, were surprised at the apparent technological sophistication that was employed to extract gasoline from a site with difficult access.


On the other side of the country, in the Pacific coast state of Jalisco, fishermen, local residents and government officials have recovered more than 112 tons of dead fish from Lake Cajititlan since late August. Located in the municipality of Tlajomulco de Zuñiga, about 25 minutes by highway from Guadalajara, the lake has experienced several previous episodes of massive fish kills.


Tlajomulco Mayor Ismael del Toro Castro explained the latest kill as the outcome of a “natural” cycle in which a lake situated in a closed, fragile basin is sapped of oxygen. State and federal environmental authorities, however, pointed to inadequate wastewater treatment facilities in the municipality as the cause of the dead fish.


“This can’t be natural or cyclical, and it has been said so since last year,” retorted Magdalena Ruiz Mejia, Jalisco state environment secretary.


The Lake Cajititlan affair has become something of a political “fish ball,” with state officials urging the Tlajomulco municipal government to control residential development near the lake, and Mayor Toro responding that the administration of Governor Jorge Aristoteles Sandoval has not fulfilled prior commitments to fund the improvement of wastewater treatment plants; state environment officials, meanwhile, have declared an environmental contingency for Lake Cajititlan.


While more dead fish are scooped from the lake’s waters, the National Human Rights Commission, University of Guadalajara, and the federal attorney general’s office are all proceeding with separate probes into the matter.


Back in the north, the consequences of last month’s toxic waste spill at Grupo Mexico’s Buenavista Copper (Cananea) mine near the Mexico-U.S. border, which Mexican Environment Secretary Juan Jose Guerra termed “the worst environmental disaster of the mining industry in the country,” continue to grow far and wide.


The August 6 spill contaminated a stretch of about 140 miles of the Sonora and Bacanuchi rivers with a toxic cocktail blend whipped up from 10,000 gallons of copper sulfate acid, sulfuric acid, and heavy metals like arsenic and cadmium.


It practically paralyzed economic activities in seven municipalities for more than 22,000 people; resulted in severe water restrictions in the impacted zone; impelled the indefinite suspension of classes as the new school year was getting underway; and cut off the state capital of Hermosillo’s use of a water reservoir because of the threats posed by the migration of toxic substances. At least eight people who reportedly had contact with contaminated water have received medical attention.


Owned by German Larrea, one of the richest men in Mexico, Grupo Mexico has recently posted a series of statements detailing its response to the eco-disaster.


According to the mining giant, the company has supplied clean water to residents; set up five water purification plants; allocated about $300,000 to the affected municipalities; and hired experts from universities in Mexico and the United States to test and analyze both river and well water.


The company challenged earlier media reports that it did not notify authorities of the spill until days afterward, arguing that it “followed protocols” by swiftly informing the federal Environment Secretariat and unnamed local authorities.


“We regret this incident occurred and express our willingness to work with the authorities on a swift solution to clean up the rivers and restore the area affected, in strict adherence of the relevant laws and regulations,” Grupo Mexico declared.


But Sonora residents and officials assert that Grupo Mexico is not moving fast enough or meeting all the expenses incurred by its spill.


On September 3, about 50 protesters temporarily blockaded the Baviacora-Aconchi Highway demanding answers and actions from Grupo Mexico. For its part, the Sonora state government announced last week that it would file a lawsuit against Grupo Mexico to recover about $10 million the state has already spent on cleaning up the two polluted rivers. Overall clean-up and compensation costs are expected to top more than $70 million, according to Environment Secretary Guerra.


In addition to civil lawsuits, Grupo Mexico faces legal action and fines from federal environmental authorities.


The company put a positive spin on the first round of water quality testing done last month in the spill zone, stating that National Water Commission (Conagua) reports showed 95 percent of the metals detected were within standards. But Conagua revealed August 21 that test results from the Sonora River reported concentrations of arsenic, cadmium, copper, chromium and mercury above the official norm; consequently, water usage restrictions were continued.


On a recent tour of the spill zone, members of Greenpeace Mexico heard accounts from residents of two previous spills in Grupo Mexico’s mining area earlier this year that allegedly were not reported because of the lesser magnitude of the incidents.


Sinai Guevara, toxics campaign coordinator for Greenpeace Mexico, called for continual monitoring of the zone’s water supplies. According to Guevara, the clean-up work observed by her group appeared to be of a superficial nature. The environmental activist also questioned the fines likely to be assessed on Grupo Mexico.


“It’s not enough to slap fines, because this constitutes a license to pollute,” Guevara said. “The company could pay a maximum of 40 million pesos (less than three million dollars), which is 0.03 percent of its total earnings.”


Guevara’s organization is calling for the closure of Buenavista Copper, a demand rejected by both Grupo Mexico, which vows to more than double the mine’s production as a contribution to “job creation and economic growth of the country,” and Economy Secretary Ildefonso Guajardo. The Peña Nieto cabinet official likewise supported the economic importance of Grupo Mexico’s Sonora copper mine, but insisted that “absolute respect” for environmental regulations must be guaranteed.


“The Sonora River spill is only the tip of the iceberg in the toxic contamination of Mexican rivers,” Greenpeace Mexico said in a statement. “According to the National Water Commission, 70 percent of national rivers present some degree of contamination, but little or nothing is being done to revert it, much less prevent it.”


Finally, environmentalists have sounded what is perhaps the final alarm bell for “la vaquita,” or the Gulf of California harbor porpoise, the critically endangered marine mammal that inhabits the upper portion of the Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez).


According to the International Committee for the Recuperation of the Gulf of California Porpoise (Cirva), less than 100 of the small creatures remain alive. The population is about half the number that existed only two years ago, according to a recent Cirva report. Barring firm action by the Mexican government, the species could go extinct by 2018, Mexican environmentalists warn.


“The vaquita is in imminent danger of extinction,” the Cirva report stated. Conservationists and wildlife researchers say the biggest threat to the porpoise’s survival is the commercial fishing industry’s use of gillnets meant for other species but which ensnare the threatened mammals and kill them.



Sources: Proceso/Apro, August 29, 2014; September 2, 3 and 4, 2014. Articles by Luciano Campos Garza, Alberto Osorio Mendez and editorial staff. Notimex, August 31 and September 3, 2014. La Jornada (Monterrey edition), August 21, 2014. Article by Erick Muñiz. La Jornada, August 23, 24, 25, 26, 28, 29, 2014; September 3 and 4, 2014. Articles by Ulises Gutierrez Ruelas, Erick Muñiz, Ivan Restrepo, Angelica Enciso, Juan Carlos Partida, and Jesus Aranda. El Diario de Juarez/Excelsior, August 14 and 20, 2014.


Reprinted with authorization from Frontera NorteSur, a free, on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news source; translation FNS.

Frontera NorteSur (FNS)

Center for Latin American and Border Studies

New Mexico State University

Las Cruces, New Mexico

Share/Save/Bookmark Tell a Friend New Page 1

FAIR USE NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving such material(s) for informational, research and educational purposes. As such, we believe that this constitutes a "fair use" of any such copyrighted material as provided for in Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Law.