Environmental authorities said yesterday the Buenavista mine spill in Sonora can be described as the worst environmental disaster that the mining industry has seen in Mexico. They also laid the blame on mine owner Grupo Mexico, which could be subject to fines and sanctions of billions of pesos.
The spill of 40,000 cubic meters of copper sulphate acid solution has affected as much as 64 kilometers of the Bacanuchi River, 190 kilometers of the Sonora, 17 kilometers of the Tinajas Arroyo and the dam El Molinito, said Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Juan José Guerra Abud.
The contamination has affected 33 wells and left five people with symptoms of poisoning, said Mikel Arreola, head of the Commission for Sanitary Risk Prevention. At a joint press conference with other government agencies yesterday, he said the victims were hospitalized after suffering nausea, perspiration, gastric pain and weakness.
He said long-term consequences such as kidney damage were also possible due to heavy metals in the water. Copper, arsenic, aluminum, cadmium, chromium and lead in levels exceeding both ecological and health standards have been found in water samples from the rivers, said Arreola.
The head of the environmental agency Profepa said Grupo Mexico could be fined up to 40 million pesos, but would also have to pay remediation costs that could amount to billions of pesos.
Guillermo Haro Bélchez said the mine’s operations would not be suspended, but “if further irregularities are found other measures could be applied.”
The measures required for remediation will be determined by the National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change (INECC) in the next few weeks. Legal proceedings under the Federal Law for Environmental Responsibility will be based on INECC’s findings.
Guerra Abud said Semarnat’s priority is to apply the highest sanctions possible and ensure reparation to the environment. “It is the obligation of the company to make that reparation and we will be using the legal system to see that it’s appropriate.”
He said the spill was the fault of the mine, and not a result of heavy rains as the company claimed.
National Water Commission head David Korenfeld told the news conference that 21 checkpoints have been set up to evaluate the water, and that 1,000 samples have been sent to date to certified laboratories in Hermosillo, Sonora, and Mexico City.
Sonora’s governor says the state is maintaining contact with Grupo Mexico to ensure it provides the money necessary to repair the damage. Guillermo Padrés estimated it’s going to cost between 80 million and 100 million pesos in the first stage of repairing the contamination.
One of the objectives will be to reactivate the area economy because many agricultural producers have been affected.
At present, he said, the state is covering remediation costs, “but we have the word of Grupo Mexico that they are going to return that money, and if not we shall look at all possible legal means to make sure they deal with it.”
Padrés said workers are replacing contaminated wells and conducting clean-up efforts, while economic support is being offered to local producers, among other initiatives.