Mexico: Cananea toxic spills continue

The State Civil Protection Unit (UEPC) of the northern Mexican state of Sonora issued a new alert on Sept. 21 warning some 25,000 residents about likely contamination in the Bacanuchi and Sonora rivers from the giant Buenavista del Cobre copper mine in Cananea. According to Arizpe municipality president Vidal Vázquez Chacón, who reported the contamination a day earlier, the source was a leak in the temporary dam set up to stop the overflow of toxic substances after 40,000 cubic meters of copper sulfate acid solution spilled from the mine into the two rivers on Aug. 6. Spokespeople for Grupo México, the company that owns and operates the mine, said the latest overflow was caused by heavy rains associated with Hurricane Odile in mid-September. The 115-year-old mine makes $1 billion annually by producing some 200,000 tons of copper each year. (La Jornada, Mexico, Sept. 21; Associated Press, Sept. 21, via Salon)

Anger is growing over the damages from the spill; the National Water Commission (Conagua) initially set the cost at more than 702 million pesos (about US$53 million). On Sept. 19 the UEPC officially confirmed that Buenavista del Cobre personnel were intentionally allowing runoffs from the temporary dam. The agency's director, Carlos Jesús Arias, said that the mine was no longer giving inspectors access to the area and that UEPC officials would bring along public security forces for the next inspection. (LJ, Sept. 20)

Two days earlier, on Sept. 17, the Chamber of Deputies of the federal Congress called for the immediate suspension of the mine's operations, charging that Grupo México was putting human lives at risk, along with the environment and the region's economic development. The deputies said the company should be required to pay for all damages, and they endorsed an investigation by a special commission of the Chamber that had found repeated violations of environmental and labor regulations at Cananea. Among other findings, the commission charged that the only protection miners had against dust at the mine came from paper masks issued by management. (LJ, Sept. 15, Sept. 18)

The Cananea mine was privatized in 1990 when former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-1994) sold it to Grupo México, whose main shareholder is Mexican billionaire Germán Larrea Mota Velasco. The latest problems with the mine come as current president Enrique Peña Nieto pushes ahead with the privatization of the energy sector.

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, September 21.