Farmers Stung Twice by Grupo Mexico Spill Fouling Waters

Marco Antonio Corrales has given up on the peanut and alfalfa crops he was growing this season along the banks of the Sonora River in northern Mexico.

That’s because the waterway, polluted by a copper sulfate solution that spilled from Grupo Mexico SAB’s Buenavista del Cobre mine last month, then overflowed after Hurricane Odile soaked the region, flooding Corrales’s fields.

“We have to assume we’ve lost everything,” said the 46-year-old grower, sporting a cowboy hat and a chunky silver belt buckle. “The Sonora River was our livelihood.”

The combination of Mexico’s largest mining spill and heavy rains swelling the chemical-tainted river are causing losses to almost all cattle ranchers and crop damage in an area the government says accounts for nearly 20 percent of the state economy. Sonora’s worst rainy season in 40 years also sparked officials, who shuttered one-fifth of the mine’s production, to reduce levels at all containment pools, deputy environmental prosecutor Arturo Rodriguez said.

Odile caused two pools that once trapped toxins to overflow Sept. 18, though during the second spill, contaminants found in the river weren’t enough to pose a health hazard, he said. The mine in the first discharge dumped 11 million gallons of greenish-blue heavy metals into the Bacanuchi River, which flows into the Sonora waterway.

Leaching Pools

“We’re monitoring the operations of the company so that their caution levels are at a maximum,” Rodriguez said in a Sept. 24 interview. The goal is “to prevent unusual rains from provoking spills at the mine’s seven leaching pools that would additionally impact the Bacanuchi,” he said.

About 90 percent of farm production has been halted in the region, with local businesses losing about 702 million pesos ($52 million) in the first month alone, said Luis Nunez, the Economy Ministry’s Sonora representative, who compiled estimates from business groups.

Grupo Mexico declined to comment. Shares of the Mexico City-based company have fallen 10 percent to 44.15 pesos through yesterday since the day before the spill, the worst performance on Mexico’s IPC index. They rose 1.9 percent today, to 44.97 pesos, the biggest increase since Aug. 5.

The hurricane may have disbursed the rivers’ toxins to new surfaces after it overflowed, and more rain could spread contaminants further, Rodriguez said, though the rainwater may also dilute the copper sulfate and make it less hazardous.

Grupo Mexico has set up a $150 million trust for damage repairs. It has also agreed to increase the fund should costs rise, according to the federal government.

Escalating Pressure

Pressure is building on the company to do just that: A panel of lawmakers from the lower house of Congress called on the mining and railroad company controlled by billionaire German Larrea to establish a 5 billion-peso development fund.

Sonora’s civil protection agency banned the use of irrigation wells or crops within 1,600 feet of either river bank, leaving about 22,000 people without clean running water and their main source of income: cattle and livestock feed.

Corrales, the peanut farmer, has cut back on his family’s meat consumption to once a week as he awaits funds from the trust. The company is paying 10,000 pesos per hectare of farmland, regardless of the crop, according to the government.

Mingling with dozens of farmers wearing the same white cowboy hats in the Baviacora village square, Corrales waited to register his 3 hectares of peanuts for the subsidy. Among the most expensive plants grown along the river, his harvest would sell for three times what the trust is doling out, he said.

Arizona Border

Losses to local businesses have kept rising as buyers shun harvests and dairy products from seven villages along the river, about 30 miles from Arizona’s border. The boycott is taking place even as the federal government has yet to find proof of contamination among any cattle or vegetables, Ricardo Aguilar, deputy agriculture minister, said in an interview.

Heberto Corella Yescas, a 41-year-old dairy farmer, dumped 2,000 liters (528 gallons) of milk over the past month after the distributor who’d bought his product for years said no more. “He told us our milk was contaminated and he wouldn’t buy another liter.”

Grupo Mexico is also facing a lawsuit from the state civil protection agency, headed by Carlos Arias. Arias says the company failed to submit a risk report and a construction permit before building its new facility, which he suspended.

Mine Runoff

Arias alerted Arizona officials last week after he saw runoff from the mine enter the San Pedro River that flows across the border. Mexican federal officials who tested the water detected no toxins. The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality found normal pH levels and will release results on heavy metals later this week.

The federal government said it shut two containment pools that the miner built to trap residue for its new production after faulty pipe seals caused the August discharge. The company initially said heavy rains led to the first spill though it later acknowledged construction failures.

In 2006, a methane explosion at the company’s Pasta de Conchos coal mine in Coahuila had killed 65 workers. Most of the victims’ bodies were never recovered.

Grupo Mexico has mopped up about two-thirds of the toxins in the Sonora River, using lime to neutralize its acidity, according to Rodriguez, who said the government may lift the restriction against well-water along the river bank within weeks.

Whether people return to buy Corrales’s peanuts or Corella’s milk remains uncertain.

“The mining company comes, pays the fine and leaves, and the village still suffers,” Corrales said. “The payments are a joke. They won’t cover our losses.”

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