Mexican Mine Out Of Control

Mining is a difficult, dangerous, and dirty process.  But modern times, with all its comfort and communication, relies on precious metals and minerals.  All electronic devices contain mined material that eventually becomes laptops and cell phones.  The chance for catastrophe is, for the most part, met with engineering and operating techniques that are designed to control the by-products: toxic waste and tailings that are a remnant of most mining activities.  Accidents are commonly generated by natural, unavoidable occurrences such as storms and earthquakes, and let’s not forget human error.     

Buenavista del Cobre mine in the state of Sonora, a short distance from the U.S. border, suffered a toxic spill tainting rivers and wells that directly affects the water supplies of over 22,000 residents.  The spill was first reported last August, and said to be caused by storm damage to a holding tank.  The tank contained acid, heavy metal contaminates such as arsenic and cadmium, and God knows what else, all used to separate the copper from the ore extracted from the nearby open pit mine.  The very next day, these toxins were discovered in the nearby Bacanuchi river. The water turned a scary shade of orange and began to stink.

The spill tumbled down 170 miles of river, spreading 10.5 million gallons of copper sulfate, sulfuric acid, and other harmful minerals with it.  The Mexican National Water Commission quickly shut off water from this river to seven towns, and ordered the closure of wells surrounding the spill.  The Bacanuchi river is also a part of the water supply for the state capital Hermosillo, with a population of over 800,000. 

An immediate concern for local citizenswas the potential contamination of livestock and farms in the region.  Many worried families questioned whether the food was safe to eat.  Ranchers were instructed not to permit livestock to drink the water.  There were advisories to avoid the water, and blame was placed on the mine owner, Grupo Mexico, the largest mining company in Mexico, for the tardy notice to the authorities which compounded the spill’s impact. 

Grupo Mexico was fined and set aside funding for a ‘total remediation plan’ of the river. This included dumping millions of tons of lime in the river, which was said to have eliminated the acids spilled. However, the lime will not disperse the heavy metals that typically settle at the bottom, in the river bed, and could potentially infiltrate the aquifer or ground water. For the most part, the Sonora river has become a toxic holding tank for the mine.

This operation to date has consumed or tainted enough water to supply Hermosillo for three years.  Testing of water on ranches close to the mine has revealed high levels of contaminates.

In attempts to assure the public that their water would again be safe someday, Grupo Mexico has repeatedly stated that it will clean up the remaining toxins, along with the development of a 15 year monitoring plan. However, this company is politically connected and compliance has been, well, slow.

Mine disasters occur worldwide.  In 2009, Asarco, a subsidiary of Grupo Mexico in the U.S., settled lawsuits in 19 states and paid the U.S. Government $1.79 billion dollars.  But the money paid to Uncle Sam was not necessarily to clean up disasters but rather for the standard pollution and inherent environmental damage that comes with mining; a hard, dangerous, and dirty process.

Mining is also a thirsty procedure.  Over the past five years, Grupo Mexico has bought up leases to multiple wells in their area.  Many of these wells were previously used for agriculture and ranching, but, many poor farmers and ranchers prefer to take the fast and easy buck from the mines, selling out their water and their future livelihood, not even thinking about the people who planned on eating their produce and their meat.

Certificates for water use and rights from 1997 to 2013, as indicated by Conagua, the Mexican National Water Commission’s website, reveal none of the permits issued contained permission for the drainage, which means the mine cannot even legally discharge their used water. So where is that water going? Either in holding ponds which we now know are precarious, or is being discharged somewhere illegally. ,