Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Mining Booms and Busts Along Border: Sonora and Chihuahua

Tom Barry

Statue in Cananea, Sonora, 30 kilometers from Arizona border/ Tom Barry

Mining is booming in Mexico, especially in the northern states and border regions. Sonora and Chihuahua lead the nation in the number of new mining permits.

Only when there is an environmental disaster or when dozens of workers lose their lives because of unsafe conditions is there much public attention to the adverse consequences to the mining boom that has been spreading across Mexico since the mid-1990s. The virtually unregulated use of river and groundwater by the mining corporations is depleting transboundary river basins, while governments on both sides of the border bow to the power of the mining industry.

Area formerly farmed on edge of Laguna de Guzmán south of Palomas. / Tom Barry

Bismark Mine to South of NM Border

Over the past ten years, the water extraction operations of the giant subterranean zinc mine Bismark – which lies south of the Columbus, NM/ Palomas, Chihuahua border towns and not far from the inside corner of New Mexico’s boot heel – has dramatically lowered the water table. 

The National Water Commission (Conagua) hasn’t released information about the quantity of water used by Bismark, which is owned by Industrías Peñoles (one of Mexico’s three largest mining corporations). It may be that Conagua doesn’t even know how much water the company uses given its lax control over mining companies.

Ten years after Bismark started operations on the eastern side of the border municipio of Ascensión, area farmers mounted a series of sit-ins and protests against Bismark and Conagua in 2004. According to Armando Villareal Martha, one of the leading voices of small farmers and ranchers in Chihuahua, the water level of least 400 of the 600 wells in the region around the mine dropped 15-20 meters since Bismark began operations. Dozens of these wells had been abandoned.[i]

One doesn’t need to visit the wells of area ranchers and farmers to see the impact of the mine’s water pumping.  A 3-ft. pipe runs out of the mine gushing water day and night seven days a week. At the time of the protests, Villareal Martha asserted that the mine discharged 2,500 to 3,000 liters of water every second – a figure that neither the mine nor Conagua has disputed. (In 2008 the Villareal Martha was assassinated, and his supporters accused the government of Chihuahua.[ii])

Before the Bismark mine began operations, the Laguna de Guzmán was a recreational site but the lake has completely dried up – no longer benefiting from the artesian springs and the Casas Grandes River no longer reaches the laguna.

Industrías Peñoles also operates a copper mine in the Cananea area of Sonora, which stands on the western side of the Sierra Madre Occidental from its huge mine in Ascensión, Chihuahua.

Entrance to Bismark zinc mine, which is depleting border aquifers. / Tom Barry

Copper Mine Disaster to South of Arizona Border

When the Sonora River disaster struck this summer, there was little public information about social and environmental impacts of the Cananea and other mining operations. The flood of toxics washing down the Sonora River also led to questions by the media, the pubic, and the anti-Independencia aqueduct forces about how much water Grupo México’s Buenavista copper mine and other mining operations consumed.

About 30 miles south of the Arizona-Sonora border, an earthen dam holding back an immense tailings pond burst open. More than 40,000 cubic meters of toxic copper sulfate acid came rushing down the Sonora River valley. This flood of toxics from Grupo México’s huge copper mine in Cananea washed down one of the most beautiful river valleys in Mexico. Mexico’s environmental secretary called it the “worst natural disaster provoked by the mining industry in the modern history of Mexico.”[iii]

Grupo México train car carrying sulfuric acid. / Tom Barry

The wave of toxics – including copper, arsenic, aluminum, cadmium, chromium, manganese and lead -- poisoned more than three-hundred water wells throughout the river valley, leaving more than a dozen of small riverside towns without any water – no water to drink, to bathe with, to irrigate crops, or to give their cattle.

Other spills of highly toxic chemicals by Grupo México in the couple of weeks that followed the August 6 catastrophe set off alarms on both sides of the border about the possible contamination of the Santa Cruz and San Pedro Rivers – both of which north into the U.S. borderlands.

[i] “Protestan campesinos por sobrexplotación de agua,” El Universal, July13, 2004, at:
[ii] “El gobierno ordernó matar el lidér agraio, aseguran en Chihuaha,” La Jornada, March 17, 2008, at
[iii] “Cananea in Sonora: one of the largest open-pit mines in the world,” Geo-Mexico, Oct.2, 2014, at:

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