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News > Mexico

5 Years Later, People Protest Mexican History's Worst Oil Spill

  • A view of the Sonora river on July 3, 2019.

    A view of the Sonora river on July 3, 2019. | Photo: EFE

Published 6 August 2019

The families regret that the federal government allows Buenavista del Cobre’s Cananea mine to have more rights to the water than the people who live along the river.

Five years after the toxic spill at a Buenavista del Cobre mine that contaminated the Sonora River in northern Mexico, the inhabitants of that marginalized community are calling for protests against the transnational company responsible for what is considered the worst environmental disaster in national mining history.

15-Year-Old Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill: Thousand Times Worse than Reported

On Aug. 6, 2014, a spill at Buenavista del Cobre’s mine at Cananea sent 40,000 cubic meters of acidified copper sulfate into the Bacanuchi and Sonora rivers, leaving 22,000 inhabitants of seven municipalities without drinking water or ways to make a living.

The regional economy was obliterated in the basic sectors of agriculture, stock breeding, mining, tourism and handicrafts — activities that ceased to exist due to the contamination with toxic heavy metals.

Despite the environmental disaster, the federal government allowed the powerful Grupo Mexico consortium to expand its mining operations with the construction of a new dam for its toxic waste, located 23 kilometers from Bacanuchi, a community of 70 families in the Arizpe municipality of Sonora state.

Residents ​​​​​​ called a series of protests in the capital of the Sonora state and marched towards the regional government.

“We have a lot of doubts about when they’re going to stop all this. I’ve heard the dam they’re building is so big that the village of Bacanuchi would fit inside it many times over,” local inhabitant Maria del Socorro Dominguez told EFE.

According to estimates of an non-profit organization called the Organization, Development, Education and Research Project (PODER), a civil association that advises victims about the legal processes against Grupo Mexico currently before the Supreme Court, the Bacanuchi community would fit 178 times inside the new dam, which signifies a major risk to those living downstream.

“However much they say the river is clean, what it left behind is a trail of damage to the local economy including tourism and the sale of local products. The relation that people had with their land and the river was devastated, but I think all that harm brings us together,” said Oscar Pineda, investigator of the organization.

After the toxic spill, the federal government made the company responsible pay into a trust fund some 2 billion pesos (some US$103 million), of which it only contributed 1.3 billion pesos (some US$67 million).

The commitment was made to compensate the victims for the damages, building a hospital to care for the more than 380 victims whose health was harmed. However, the promise never materialized.

Nor were the 36 water-treatment plants — with technology to eliminate heavy metals from the water — ever built as promised. One was built but unfortunately, it can never be counted on to work all the time.

With their lives so upset, the Bacanuchi locals organized to install a purification plant so they “could always trust the water to be drinkable,” said Rosa Maria Vasquez, in charge of the plant’s maintenance.

“Tell the Grupo Mexico to think about it a little because soon people will start disappearing. Those of us who are here will die and who knows, I’m speaking for the children, our children, for our people,” said local resident Jesus Maria.

Grupo Mexico claims to have completed its compensation for the damage done by its toxic spill, while the victims keep hoping that the new federal administration will reopen the case, which is currently being processed in the Supreme Court.

Just last July 9 the case took a new turn when Grupo Mexico caused another toxic spill, this time in the Gulf of California, but environmental authorities have not spoken about what, if any, influence the sanctions applied have had on the company, whose shares on the Mexican stock exchange have been in constant decline since then. 

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