Grupo Mexico, the mining giant owned by German Larrea Mota Velasco, Mexico’s second richest man, has been in the center of a political storm since one of its mines in northern Mexico caused the worst ecological disaster in Mexican history.
According to Mexico’s federal environmental protection agency, Profepa, on August 6 Grupo Mexico’s subsidiary Buenavista del Cobre mine spilled 10 million gallons (40,000 cubic meters) of copper sulfate acid into the Sonora and Bacanuchi rivers, 25 miles south of the border with Arizona.
The contamination turned the waterways orange and affected the water supply of 24,000 people in seven communities along the rivers, forcing schools to close for several weeks while environmental authorities clean up the mess; 322 wells were shut down and more than 3 million liters of water have been distributed in trucks and bottles. Authorities place the cost of the total cleanup in the “hundreds of millions or billions” of Mexican pesos.
“This is the worst natural disaster provoked by the mining industry in the modern history of Mexico,” said Mexican Environment Minister Juan José Guerra Abud on August 26. Profepa said the mine’s leach solution yard is where the spill originated and ordered it partially shut,citing “imminent risk to the environment.”
The government has taken preliminary action to fine Grupo Mexico more than $3 million for the spill and Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office has opened a criminal investigation into top officials at the Buenavista mine, the world’s fourth largest copper mine by output.
In full-page ads in the Mexican press, Grupo Mexico blamed the acid spill on heavy rains. But the federal and state governments, as well as environmental groups, dismissed the explanation. They believe it was provoked by maintenance problems in a tank containing the acid.
It is not the first major disaster involving Grupo Mexico. In 2006, an explosion inside the Pasta de Conchos coal mine, a Grupo Mexico-owned mine 62 miles south of the Texas border, in the state of Coahuila, left 65 miners trapped underground. Only two bodies were recovered.
Yet despite increasing calls by the affected communities, environmental groups and the Mexican Congress, which has asked authorities to suspend operations at the Buenavista mine until all damages have been assessed, and also cancel the mine’s concession, Larrea has not only not apologized but also so far has not said a word about the disaster.
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