The Sonora River: an environmental disaster. The Sonora River: an environmental disaster.

On spill’s anniversary, many concerns remain

Residents worry about the water quality two years after copper mine's toxic spill

Two years after what has been described by federal authorities as Mexico’s worst environmental disaster, many residents who live near the Sonora and Bacanuchi rivers fear for the quality of their water and others for their health.


A spill at the Buenavista del Cobre copper mine in Cananea, Sonora, on August 6, 2014 released 40 million liters of copper sulphate solution into the two rivers and affected at least 21,000 residents of the region.

The copper mine, one of the world’s largest, is owned by Arizona-based Southern Copper Corporation, which is part of the Mexican mining company Grupo México. In addition to paying a 23-million-peso fine, the company agreed to put up 2 billion pesos for a trust fund that would repair the damage and pay compensation to victims.

But today many questions remain about how that money has been spent, the prospects for a specialty health clinic that was to treat the victims and why three dozen promised water treatment plants have not been built.

Some answers may come as a result of an order issued this week by a federal court in Arizona, according to organizations that sought the order. Southern Copper Corporation was given until August 18 to release information about the spill. The information will be used to strengthen legal arguments in Mexico against the mining company, said the organization Committees of the Sonora River Basin.

That group, along with another called Power, or Poder, is seeking nine legal orders relating to the incompletion of remediation measures by both the mining company and federal authorities.

Although those authorities claim water in the two rivers is now safe, a lawyer for Power said there is uncertainty about that claim. “There is no certainty about the water quality,” said Luis Miguel Cano López. “The people aren’t happy about it and don’t drink it.” And despite difficult economic conditions that have resulted from the spill, they are spending limited resources having to buy bottled water for fear that the local water supply is contaminated with heavy metals.


Thirty-seven water treatment plants were to have been installed in various communities and the first was inaugurated in February, according to a report by the newspaper El Universal. But it doesn’t even have its electrical meter installed yet, and remains idle.

More than 300 people who have been identified as having suffered damage to their health as a result of the spill were to be treated at a special clinic that was to have been built with funds from the trust.

The clinic operated in a temporary location until June 30, when it was closed. There has been no indication regarding its future.

The Committees of the Sonora Basin says 360 people are suffering from spill-related ailments, and that there are elevated numbers of cases of cancer and hypertension along with increased reports of liver, kidney, pancreas and nervous system issues.

Another of the committees’ concerns is that the contents of an environmental remediation plan have not been made public, an action that has been prevented through legal maneuvers by Grupo México, the organization claims.

The Interior Secretariat’s delegate in Sonora, Wenceslao Cota Montoya, recognizes that there are outstanding issues yet to be completed by the mining company. But he said the health clinic would be operating by October and the water treatment plants by September at the latest, as had been announced, he recalled, during the February inauguration of the first plant.

That’s the one that still has no electricity.

Source: Reforma (sp), Milenio (sp), El Universal (sp)

Stories from our archives that you might enjoy