If you live a cloistered life in an ashram or monastery in the Eastern Hemisphere it’s understandable you wouldn’t know about what is called the worst environmental disaster in Mexico’s history on August 6th, 2014 in the state of Sonora about 40 miles from the US border with Arizona. But it doesn’t make sense for those of us who follow news. For the media to bury this story behind celebrity gossip about Kim Kardashian’s butt speaks to everything that is contemptible & dishonest in corporate journalism.
The story of that mining spill is extraordinary: 11 million gallons (42 thousand cubic meters) of sulphuric acid, arsenic, cadmium, copper, chrome, & mercury was spilled into the Bacanuchi & Sonora rivers, contaminating the water supply for several municipalities (including the downstream capital city of Hermosillo with one million people), destroying the local ecology along the river & the livelihood of thousands of farmers, making the area uninhabitable for local flora, fauna, wildlife & for birds on a major north-south migration route. The story involves the wrenching battles fought between Mexican corporations & the labor movement to impose a neoliberal business model & culture.
The spill happened at the Buenavista del Cobre mine in Cananea which played a role in the Mexican Revolution of 1910 & has a long history in the labor movement. Mining was not nationalized & placed under government control like the oil sector but was included in the process of expelling foreign investors & “Mexicanizing” industry. The Mexican state owned controlling shares & had monopoly control of what was then named the Cananea Mining Company. Mexico was a capitalist state & its mining operations still routinely dispossessed small farmers & Indigenous peoples for mining expansion, controlled the unions mafia-style, & did not implement environmental regulations. But neoliberalism is the barbaric phase of capitalism
Under the whip of an IMF-World Bank restructuring program in the 1980s, the Cananea Mining Company was put up for sale by the regime of Carlos Salinas. They sold it in 1990 at less than a quarter of its market value to Grupo Mexico, half owned by Germán Larrea whose father was well-connected to the Salinas regime. The three richest men in Mexico today were the main beneficiaries of privatization. One of them, Carlos Slim, is the richest man in the world. Larrea’s fortunes now include Grupo Mexico (GM), the largest mining company in Mexico with subsidiaries in the US & Peru; a majority of the rail lines in Mexico, including the infamous La Bestia which Central American immigrants ride north (Larrea’s ownership explains why the trains do not stop so immigrants can board & discharge safely & many are killed or maimed); a stake in an airline; & he’s now bidding on a new TV network. His personal worth is over $15 billion & he ranks #67 on Forbes annual list of the richest people in the world.
It’s worth noting that Asarco, the GM subsidiary in the US (based in Arizona) has been cited multiple times for violations at 20 superfund sites & is the subject of considerable litigation. In 2009 alone, Asarco paid the US government nearly $2 billion to settle hazardous waste pollution claims in 19 states. It’s Peruvian subsidiary, which controls two mines opposed by local residents, flew past Peruvian regulators with favorable environmental impact reports prepared by a company GM hired & likely a lot of greased palms.
Miners in the Cananea mine resisted the neoliberal way of doing business which cannot coexist in harmony with even company unions. There were immense labor battles at the mine, including extreme violence, to lower wages & sabotage safety regulations. Striking miners were fired wholesale, the regime sent troops to break the union, & many miners became undocumented immigrants to the US in fear for their lives. The name change to Buenavista Copper Mine signals a new regime where no locals nor family members of those in the former union are hired, & the union is completely controlled by Grupo Mexico.
When the spill happened on August 6th (& again in mid-September), the neoliberal grand-master president Enrique Peña Nieto, the Mexican Congress, government regulatory agencies were all talking tough & calling for sanctions because Grupo Mexico failed to report the spill, lied about its causes to the authorities, failed to carry out an industrial cleanup, & attempted to bribe & bully mayors in the municipalities affected by forcing them to sign affidavits the cleanup was conducted & threatening to withhold clean water from residents. When the mayors did refuse, state officials in Sonora began withholding water delivery services from tanker trucks. The truth of the matter is, a company as reckless as Grupo Mexico hasn’t a clue how to proceed with cleanup & isn’t willing to pay for the expertise or necessary industrial equipment.
At first Grupo Mexico suffered on the stock exchange but when it weathered the fallout–that is, the plaintive whimpers of the Mexican regime–neoliberal plunder was good to go. It’s now recovered & considered prime stock. GM, which has an annual net income of $2 billion (half from the Buenavista mine) was able to walk away with a nominal fine of $150 million (which may or may not be dispersed) & an offer to give 2,000 pesos (US$150) to each person affected on the banks of the rivers. One report says the state officials are doling out 804 pesos (US$61) per week to those affected along the river banks. It’s not certain what that means since the disaster reaches far beyond the river banks & those who live adjacent to it.
Sinaloa Collective Actions & their lawyer Luis Manuel Perez de Acha are preparing a lawsuit against Grupo Mexico but the way neoliberalism works, Grupo Mexico has the courts all wrapped up in deals at the country club. The only way out of neoliberal predation is to overthrow it.
This is a photo of the Sonora river basin after the Buenavista spill.
(Photo from Sonora river basin from Regeneración)