Friday, August 15, 2014

Ecological Disaster Hits Banámichi

The first we heard of it was an evening call from our friend Lynn. I could heart the seriousness in her voice even before she told us what had happened. It seems that there had been a chemical spill into the Bacanuchi river at the copper mine in Cananea, about 95 miles north of Banámichi. That river is a tributary of the Río Sonora which runs through all the towns along the Ruta de los Misiones...the Mission Route that runs along the Río Sonora. The contamination flowed through Arizpe, Banámichi, San Felipe, Aconchi, Baviácora, Ures and on into Hermosillo, the state capital, with about 800,000 people.

Contaminated Río Sonora: Photo courtesy of Los Arcos Hotel
It wasn't clear that any of the water in Banámichi was safe for any use, so we decided to postpone our trip until there was more information. By the next day, we heard that the water in town was pretty much OK, so we packed the car and headed on down, packing 10 gallons of Tucson water to be on the safe side. Once we arrived, the first thing that was clear was how difficult it was going to be to get accurate information. Seemed like there were bits and pieces of the story floating around town, along with some spurious rumors that seemed unlikely to be true. The problem is, how to tell which is which?

What we have been able to verify at this point through online articles is that there was a failure in a leaching pond at the Buenavista mine operated by Grupo Mexico in Cananea. About 10 million gallons of sulfuric acid, containing copper and other pollutants like arsenic flowed downstream into the river. This happened sometime during the night of August 7-8th, and less than 24 hours later, the acid arrived in Arizpe and later in Banámichi, where the river ran bright orange and smelled rotten. Farmers and ranchers reported that fish, and animals that had contact with the water died. Residents have been told to avoid contact with the river water.
On Monday the river still looked bad.

Meanwhile, Grupo Mexico did not report the spill until nearly 24 hours had passed, (some say not for 2 days) so the first that people knew about it was the orange river water. The Attorney General for Environmental Protection (Mexico) said the spill was caused by lax supervision at the mine, heavy rains and construction defects. Mine operators should have detected and stopped the leak before such large quantities were released.

The end result is that water supplies to about 22,000 people along the Río Sonora have been cut off at the height of the summer heat. Water trucks from Conagua (Mexico's National Commission on Water) have been coming to town and giving out free 5 gallon jugs of drinking water, 1 per family. (Some families have 10-11 people!) People have to sign for them, and today we heard that the military is guarding the water trucks. There is no water to wash themselves or clothes or dishes.

What a mess! The sulfuric acid has been more or less neutralized by the dumping of large quantities of lime into the river. Fortunately it is the rainy season, and a great deal of rain will help to dilute and wash out the acid and the lime. The larger concern is the heavy metal contamination. The local farmers and ranchers rely on the river for irrigation and livestock. If the heavy metals get into alfalfa and hay crops, they will also get into livestock, and the ranchers may not be able to sell their cattle or their milk. That being the only local industry, this has the potential to take down the entire economy of the Río Sonora valley.

In the past few years, many farmers locally have planted pecan trees in an attempt to diversify the local economy. If the heavy metals get into the pecans, those also will be worthless. Because the city water has been turned off, our hotel friends have temporarily closed down. And what about the tortilla makers, the salsa makers and all the others others who rely on water for their businesses?

The Santa Elena gold and  silver mine here in Banámichi (no connection to Grupo Mexico) has put its lab at the disposal of the town, and we are all anxiously waiting to hear their report about our tap water that comes from various wells.* The report was due to come in yesterday, bu so far there is no news. Heavy metals could also leach from the river bed into those wells over time and ultimately affect the health of people here in town. Meanwhile, Conagua has tested the river water and found that even though the PH has been pretty much normalized, the levels of aluminum, arsenic, cadmium, copper and iron are many times higher that the acceptable standard.

Today I heard a rumor from a local person that Grupo Mexico was illegally mining gold and silver at the copper mine and smuggling it into the US. That would explain the presence of some of the heavy metals in the spill which are not normally used in copper mining.*

We have been using the drinking water we brought from home. We also closed the intake to our tinaco (water cistern on the roof) and have been using that water very sparingly. Try a 2 minute shower using about a gallon of water! How about washing dishes in rainwater? Even so, that supply will not last long. Perhaps this is how we should have been living all along in the desert southwest!

The longer we are here, the more the impact sinks in. If the city well water is contaminated, there will be no point in planting a vegetable garden this year. Arsenic laced veggies? No thank you! Do we leave the irrigation on for our fruit trees when we leave? And do we really want arsenic in our roses and flower beds? The only alternative is to let them die.

And what has happened to Grupo Mexico? PROFEPA, Mexico's federal agency for environmental protection, has ordered the company to provide full remediation for the spill. Some online articles have said that the company will have to pay the equivalent of $100,000 in fines. Proceedings to determine other possible sanctions have been initiated. Other articles say that the company will have to pay 1-20,000 minimum wages in reparations. They have also been told that they must monitor surface and groundwater in the area monthly for 5 years, as well as cover the costs for Conagua emergency distribution of water.

To us, coming from a more litigious society, all of this seems like a mere slap on the hand given the damage that has been done. In contrast, in the US in 2009, Asarco, which is a subsidiary of Grupo Mexico, payed the US government nearly 2 billion dollars to settle claims for hazardous waste pollution.Clearly, they have a poor record.

Back in Banámichi, there has been little or no information available. All of the facts presented in this blog have come from online sources. To us as Americans used to information overload, this is shocking and unconscionable. All the populace knows right now is that there has been a chemical spill, that the water is turned off and that Conagua is supplying some, but not enough,  bottled water.

Most of the folks in town are simple, uneducated people (with a lot of heart) who do not have the sophistication to think through the long term implications of what has happened. A small group of educated people has gotten together to make demands on behalf of everyone. The protest group is circulating a petition asking Grupo Mexico to dig a new well for Banámichi in a different aquifer, and to provide each household with a tinaco which is kept full at all times. This seems the least they should do!

Not many came to the town meeting.
A town meeting was called for last night, but less than 100 people were present. I am told by a local source that people feel powerless in the face of systemic corruption. Those who speak out may face punishment. We heard today that the organizers of the meeting were legally requested to come to city hall this morning. This is ominous* of this posting has been no word about what happened to them.

To us as observers and part time participants in the town, it seems like the sanctions on Grupo Mexico should be pretty severe. After all, BP had to pay big time for the gulf oil spill. This is the Sonoran ecological equivalent of that disaster. Grupo Mexico is also a huge conglomerate with deep pockets and so the sanctions should be proportionate. But, this is Mexico, not the US...time will tell how this will all unfold. Updates will be posted.

* Corrections as of 8/22/2014
It appears that some of the information in this article came from unfounded rumors:
  • Apparently, the Santa Elena mine never was going to test the local water, so that is the reason we never got the results.
  • As of last week, Grupo Mexico had published on its web site that it was minning gold and silver as well as copper in Cananea.
  • Finally, all is well with the protestors. They were in fact called before government officials and scolded, but were able to clarify that there was no wrong-doing on their part, so they are well and continuing their efforts.

ABC News International
El Universal