Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Grupo México Drinks Public’s Water in Cananea

Sonora River Valley south  of Cananea / Tom Barry

Mining Water in Sonora: Part Two

(Part Two of three articles on Grupo México's use and abuse of water resources in Sonora. First in series at:

Governmental corruption and deception obstruct a full account of Grupo México's water consumption and water contamination in Sonora. Despite the August 2014 flood of toxics in the Río Sonora, Grupo México has maintained a lockdown on information about its use of Sonora's water resources. At the same time, however, Grupo México floods business information markets with a steady stream of media releases boasting about its low-cost production, surge in revenues, and oligopolistic hold on mining, transportation, and ancillary service industries.

Since 1997 Conagua has issued a stream of permits to Grupo México to extract groundwater in aquifers that the agency itself has repeatedly declared as being severely over-exploited – where natural recharge rates are far exceeded by the extraction rates.  If one were to accept that the firm used only the amount specified in its Conagua permits, the copper mining operations in Cananea, according to one media report, use 75% more than the seven municipios in the Sonora River basin.1

In 2002-2005 Conagua issued nine concessions for mining in Cananea area to Grupo México for water extraction from two aquifers that are covered by federal restrictions or vedas (against the drilling of new water wells, according to media reports in Mexico.2 The vedas – issued in 1967 and 184 – prohibited all new water wells unless they were explicitly for urban public use.

These permits, which the Vicente Fox administration issued, allowed the extraction of 28 million of cubic meters of water from aquifers that Conagua describes as being severely over-exploited.

Until recently Grupo México’s water permits  – including five issued by Conagua in 2012 – were for pumping in Sonora river aquifers (notably by the Bacanuchi tributary that was flooded with sulfuric acid in August 2014). According to media reports, Conagua in 2013 issued a wide-ranging permit to Grupo México to begin drilling in the San Pedro River basin as part of its multi-billion dollar expansion in the Cananea region.

According to a report by Proceso and other media reports, this latest permit  -- like the previous ones -- specifies that the water should be used only for urban public consumption (“uso público urbano”)– not for mining or industrial operations.3 None of these water-extraction permits includes permission for the discharge of used water – whether contaminated or not -- back into the aquifer.

Conagua has not been forthcoming about the permits it has issued to Grupo México for either its Cananea or Nacozari operations. Nor has the federal agency provided any calculations of the quantity of water consumed – with or without permits -- at Sonora’s largest mines. Upon questioning by congressional deputies, Conagua director David Korenfeld did, however, acknowledge that at least for four years (1999-2002) the Buenvavista mine did use potable water for mining activities under an urban-use permit.4

Conagua is one of Mexico’s most corrupt, nontransparent, and unaccountable federal agencies. Water permits are bought and sold regardless of water-use restrictions or well-drilling prohibitions. Permits for one well commonly are used to drill a battery of wells. The permits on record in Conagua regional offices don’t even closely reflect the water-use patterns in any region because of the proliferation of illegal, cloned, or “irregular” permits that exist.

Conagua’s water-extraction permits for Grupo México’s Cananea operations are what are commonly known as “concesiones irregulars” – permits that don’t conform to the national water law. Yet especially in the arid states, there are more irregular water permits than legal ones, given the restrictions on new wells in overexploited water basins.

The Mexican government hasn’t filed criminal or civil charges against Grupo México for what a federal government official called the “worst natural disaster” in Mexico’s mining history.” That should be of no surprise. The sheer economic power of Mexico’s largest mining company accounts for Grupo México’s continued privileged status and impunity. Since the 1980s the federal government (under both PRI and PAN leadership) has effectively colluded with Grupo México to evade Mexico’s environmental and water laws.

Conagua isn’t the only federal agency that has in effect allowed Grupo México to mine and process copper outside of the government’s environmental and water-use regulations. The Buenavista mine can point to more than five-dozen federal permits it has received from SEMARNAT, PROFEPA, Conagua, and the economic ministry. PROFEPA, the federal agency in charge of enforcing environmental regulations, has categorized Grupo México as a “clean industry,” thereby facilitating new permits for changes in land-use, such as clearing forested land for mining operations and tailings ponds. Most of the federal permits don’t expire until after 2050. 

1 Proceso online, Sept. 23, 2014; Georgina Howard, “Permite Conagua desorden minero,” Reporte Indigo, Sept. 30, 2014. Media reports cite a PRD congressional commission investigating the August 6, 2014 contamination.
2 Angélica Enciso L, “Minera Buenavista del Cobre opera en Cananea con permisos de agua irregulars,” La Jornada, Sept. 23, 2014.
3 Proceso online, Sept. 23, 2014 Georgina Howard, “Permite Conagua desorden minero,” Reporte Indigo, Sept. 30, 2014. Media reports cite a PRD congressional commission investigating the August 6, 2014 contamination.
4 “Explotó Grupo México agua de ríos ilegalmente: Conagua,” La Jornada, Sept. 30, 2014.

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