Toxic Mine Waste Spill Litigation Piles Up

Litigation stemming from a spill last year of toxic mine waste in the northern Mexican border state of Sonora is growing.

Last week, prominent Sonora environmentalist Rosa Maria O’Leary filed a legal complaint against Buenavista del Cobre, operators of the copper mine located near the Mexico-U.S. border, as well as an assortment of state and federal government agencies charged with protecting the environment and public health.

O’Leary alleges that responsible authorities and Buenavista del Cobre, an affiliate of mining giant Grupo Mexico, have been derelict in their duty by failing to clean up the environment and safeguard public health in the wake of the August 2014 spill from mine property in the municipality of Cananea that sent 10,000,000 gallons of waste containing toxic heavy metals tumbling into the Sonora and Bacanuchi watersheds.

“They believe they are dealing with fools and we can’t allow this, because they are playing with the lives of human beings,” O’Leary was quoted in the Mexican press. “They did not comply with the most basic thing of cleaning up the affected rivers. I took the decision to file the complaint for official dereliction of duty, in which each of the agencies incurred by not attending to the most vulnerable victims: the children.”

According to the environmentalist, the municipalities of Cananea, Hermosillo and Bacoachi should be added to the list of seven other ones identified as suffering damages from the ecological disaster.

O’Leary’s complaint adds to a body of litigation flowing from the spill that includes so far a suit against Buenavista del Cobre by the Mexican federal government, legal demands against the company by the civil society organization PODER, and two class action lawsuits by another civil society group, Sinaloa Collective Actions.

In September, PODER published a study based on official documents that challenged the initial version of the spill as an accident caused by excessive rainfall. According to the activist group, Grupo Mexico’s affiliate cut corners on environmental regulations to save money.

The 2014 spill immediately impacted the lives of more than 22,000 people living downstream from Grupo Mexico’s copper mine. The disaster prompted water usage restrictions that extended to the state capital of Hermosillo, triggered the suspension of school in the affected area, threatened both livestock and wildlife, and exposed residents to toxic substances.

Contaminating stretches of the Sonora and Bacanuchi rivers for about 140 miles, the toxic stream unleashed from the spilled mine waste contained copper sulfate acid, sulfuric acid, arsenic and cadmium.

Mexico’s Attorney General for Environmental Protection later slapped a fine of approximately $1.5 million on Buenavista del Cobre, partially closed the Cananea copper mine and established a trust fund with an estimated value of $150 million to pay for spill-related costs. Moreover, the government has formed a special environmental and epidemiological unit to monitor the spill zone until 2029.

At a press conference held on the first anniversary of the spill, the chief of Mexico’s Federal Commission for Protection against Sanitary Risks, Mikel Arriola Penalosa, said 10,875 people affected by the spill had been attended to by government officials.

Of this number, 360 were confirmed as suffering from toxic metals exposure, Arriola said. Specifying the health effects, Arriola said 290 victims suffered skin problems, while 25 others came down with gastroenteritis. Smaller numbers were afflicted with neurological and other health problems. The federal official said 179 victims were compensated to the tune of about $500,000.

Despite government actions, critics contend that the actions needed to clean up the spill zone and attend victims have been far too slow and limited in scope.

Former Mexican Environment Secretary Juan Jose Guerra called the Grupo Mexico spill “the worst environmental disaster of the mining industry in the country.”

For background on the Buenavista del Cobre/Sonora eco-disaster see:

Sources: Reforma, October 28, 2015. Proceso/Apro, August 4, September 22 and October 28, 2015. Articles by Milton Martinez.

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