Three years after a massive toxic spill into two rivers in Sonora, the company responsible has failed to deliver on its promises to deliver infrastructure projects to treat affected people and repair damage caused by the disaster.
On August 6, 2014, 40,000 cubic meters of copper sulfate and other toxic substances spilled into the Sonora and Bacanuchi rivers from the copper mine Buenavista del Cobre in Cananea, Sonora. Mexico’s largest mining corporation, Grupo México, operates the mine.
The spill affected an estimated 22,000 people in seven municipalities.
To treat and monitor victims of the contamination, the federal Health Secretariat (Salud) in conjunction with Grupo México announced in 2015 the construction of a 279-million-peso (US $15.6-million) medical clinic and environmental monitoring facility to be known as the Epidemiological and Environmental Vigilance Unit (Uveas).
However, construction of the facility — located in the municipality of Ures where some of the affected people live — never got beyond the initial stage and has now been abandoned.
An official from Sonora’s Interior Secretariat said that while Grupo México is planning to finish construction it will not become a clinic, as planned. Instead, he said, the community will decide on another use for the facility, adding that it was up to the federal Health Secretariat to demand Grupo México complete the project as originally intended.
A small Uveas medical team is currently operating out of a rented house in Ures with two consultation rooms, a far cry from the elaborate facilities planned. Uveas director Joel López said that over half of the clinic’s patients had stopped coming.
Elda León, a 45-year-old woman from Banámichi who says she has copper in her blood, stated that she and others couldn’t afford transportation to the medical facility.
León was one of about 360 people who received one-off compensation payments from Salud of between 15,000 and 35,000 pesos but she says that it is not enough.
The clinic is not the only promise Grupo México has failed to deliver on.
The company also committed to the installation of 36 water purification plants although the number was later reduced to 27. However, earlier this year Sonora Governor Claudia Pavlovich announced that just nine plants would be installed. So far only one is in place although it is currently out of service due to a lack of electricity.
A private trust with a 2-billion-peso (US $112-million) budget established by Grupo México to deliver the plants and other projects was shut down in February without reporting how the money allocated was spent or what progress it had made.
A residents’ group, the Sonora River Basin Committee, legally questioned the use of the money but a judge ruled that the information is private because it relates to a private trust despite its chief being an undersecretary in the federal Environment Secretariat (Semarnat).
The same group also disputed a Semarnat report that 41 new wells had been drilled and over 10,000 tinacos (domestic water tanks) had been installed to affected homes saying that the tinacos were already in place and the wells were the same ones that had previously been closed.
Federal environmental officials have described the spill as “the worst environmental disaster” in the history of Mexican mining.