Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Grupo México and the Yaqui Water War

Mining Water in Sonora: Part One

(Map of principal mining operations / Dirección General de Minería.)

Grupo México is likely single largest water consumer in Sonora. The mining giant almost certainly contaminates more surface water and groundwater than any other private entity. 

But no one – except Grupo México executives -- knows how much water the company uses and how much it contaminates.

That’s because Grupo México and the entire mining sector in Sonora operate behind a shield of government secrecy, favors, and corruption.

The public guardians of water in Sonora -- the State Water Commission (CEA) and the National Water Commission (Conagua) – don’t regulate the company’s water use and don’t monitor its discharges of contaminated water. The federal government’s environmental agencies – SEMARNAT and PROFEPA– are charged with protecting Mexico’s natural resources and assessing the environmental impact of commercial and industrial operations, but instead collaborate with polluters to keep money flowing.[i]

But it is not only this shield of governmental collusion with Grupo México and the mining industry that keeps fundamental facts about the use and destruction of natural resources a secret. Citizens and researchers can’t find out the essential facts of the industry’s operations because the Grupo México mining and metallurgical complexes in northern Sonora are heavily guarded enclaves. Only in extraordinary circumstances – such as the company’s massive contamination of the Sonora River in August 2014 or the company’s heartless disregard for the fate of the 65 mineworkers trapped and dying in its Pasta de Conchos Mine in Coahuila in February 2006 – do some of the dirty secrets of the Grupo México – government collusion come to light.

Sonora like its neighboring states on either side of the international border is caught in a deepening water crisis  -- one that is largely its own making but now made ever more grim by the onslaught of climate change with its more extreme weather, prolonged droughts, and rising temperatures.

Grupo México is a major player in this crisis because of massive consumption of water. The virtual absence until recently of public, media, and governmental scrutiny of Grupo México’s water-use and environmental practices is a testament to the company’s privileged status in Mexico and especially in Sonora.

Grupo México's railway company with tanker car carrying sulphuric acid /Photo by Tom Barry

This lack of scrutiny is all the more stunning given that its two mining complexes are situated in the upper basins of Sonora’s two most important rivers: the Buenavista del Cobre mine in Cananea in the Río Sonora basin which feeds the state’s capital and most populous city, and the La Caridad mining and metallurgical complex at the company town of Nacozari de García and next to the La Angostura dam and reservoir on Río Bavispe which feeds the mighty Yaqui River and sustains the state’s most productive agricultural region in the Yaqui Valley.

Recently, the expansion of Grupo México’s excavation and processing activities in the Cananea region are also increasingly putting the San Pedro river basin at risk, underscoring the cross-border implications and political repercussions of the expansion of this transnational mining company.

Since 2010 a water war has set Sonora on edge. The Yaqui Water War concerns the historic use and the water rights of the Sonora and Yaqui Rivers. Yet despite its depredation of the water resources of both rivers, the central role of Grupo México in depleting and contaminating these two river basins has been largely unexamined – due to its privileged status with the state and federal governments and the impenetrability of its guarded mining enclaves.

Government and company secrets obstruct a complete accounting of the extent of Grupo México’s depredations of the Sonora, Yaqui, and San Pedro Rivers. Despite the social, economic, and political tensions of the Yaqui Water War and despite the company’s responsibility for the worst environmental disaster in the history of mining in Sonora, there are still only bits and pieces of information available about the role of Grupo México in accelerating the water crisis that is threatening the future of Sonora and the border region.

It is likely that only Grupo México knows how much surface and groundwater it extracts from the aquifers associated with the Yaqui, San Pedro, and Sonora Rivers. Even the government, which issues the company hundreds of permits for water consumption and land use, has only the scantiest data about the company’s actual water use and environmental impacts.

The involved government agencies pose as regulators, monitors, protectors of the nation’s natural resources, when in fact, as events have so starkly demonstrated, the agencies that are charged with controlling Grupo México serve more as facilitators and enablers. SEMARNAT, PROFEPA, CEA, and Conagua are in effect (and by choice) bystanders in the plundering and rape of Sonora’s water resources.

La Caridad Mine,with aqueduct and processing ponds.

(Map of principal mining operations / Dirección General de Minería.)

[i] SEMARNAT is the Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales, while PROFEPA (Procuraduría Federal de Protección al Ambiente) is a decentralized branch of SEMARNAT that inspects, monitors environmental agreements, and is charged with enforcing the country’s environmental regulations.

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