Mexico: unionists protest Cananea toxic spill

At least 800 members of Section 65 of the National Union of Mine and Metal Workers and the Like of the Mexican Republic (SNTMMSRM, "Los Mineros") began blocking the three main entrances to the giant Buenavista del Cobre copper mine in Cananea, near the US border in the northwestern state of Sonora, on Aug. 20 to protest environmental damage caused two weeks earlier when about 40,000 cubic meters of copper sulfate acid solution spilled from the mine into the Bacanuchi and Sonora rivers. Most of the unionists lost their jobs four years ago when the mine's owner, Grupo México S.A.B. de C.V., broke a 2007-2010 strike over health and safety issues. "During the strike we made several complaints about the improper and inadequate measures Grupo México implemented for preventing overflows from the dams" for chemicals and heavy metals, Section 65 director Sergio Tolano Lizárraga told the national daily La Jornada. He said the blockade would continue until the company recognized the workers' old contract. (LJ, Aug. 22)

Authorities shut down wells in the region following the Aug. 6 spill, depriving an estimated 22,000 residents of water; 89 schools had to be closed just as classes were starting for the new school year. On Aug. 19 officials from the Federal Attorney General's Office for Protection of the Environment (Profepa) said they had filed charges against Grupo México, which could be fined up to 43 million pesos (US$3.3 million) and would be responsible for cleanup costs. The company denied reports that it hadn't initially reported the spill. On Aug. 23 officials from Profepa and the National Water Commission (Conagua) said they had now found leaks in the temporary dam set up to stop the overflow of toxic substances into the Sonora. (Wall Street Journal, Aug. 19; LJ, Aug. 24)

"Grupo México is a serial killer," labor activist Cristina Auerbach Benavides told La Jornada. "It's never made repairs in the environment where it has passed through. Grupo México rots everything it touches." Auerbach—who directs the Pasta de Conchos Family, an organization of relatives of 65 coal miners killed in a methane explosion at a Grupo México mine in Coahuila in February 2006—dated the company's history of environmental disasters and industrial accidents back to 1908, when 200 miners died in a gas explosion at the Rosita 3 coal mine in Coahuila.

Guillermo Martínez Berlanga, director of the Ecological Committee for Wellbeing, noted the small size of the proposed fine against Grupo México for creating a major disaster; in contrast, the US government fined the company's US subsidiary Asarco $800,000 just for failing to allow an audit. The Mexican government's approach to national companies like Grupo México and the state-owned Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex) raises questions about President Enrique Peña Nieto's controversial "energy reform," which will open up the energy sector to private and foreign companies. "These ecological disasters demonstrate that Mexico isn't ready for the energy reform," Martínez Berlanga said, "because if the government can't control Pemex's spills and Grupo México's contamination, much less will it be able to control multinationals that are 10 times more powerful and [have] a greater power to corrupt." (LJ, Aug. 24)

In other news, protests were being planned internationally on Aug. 21 to mark the first anniversary of the imprisonment of community activist Nestora Salgado and to demand her release. Sites for the protests included her hometown, Olinalá in the southwestern state of Guerrero; Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle and Portland in the US; and Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic. Mexican author Elena Poniatowska, Mexican director and actor Jesusa Rodríguez, and US Congress member Adam Smith (D-WA) are among the people supporting Salgado, who holds dual Mexican and US citizenship; she was arrested while heading the community police in Olinalá. (LJ 8/21/14)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, August 24.