Tuesday - Jul 16, 2019

Nearly 3 million gallons of toxic one mine fall on Mexican River

by David Bacon

Editor’s note:
This is a continuation of last week When the river turned yellow

In the late 1980s, the administration of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari first declared the Cananea mine bankrupt, and then sold it to the Larrea family’s Grupo Mexico for $475 million in 1990. That’s the equivalent of the last three months of Grupo Mexico’s current profits.

Salinas also sold the neighboring Nacozari mine, almost as big as Cananea, to the Larreas in 1988. In 1997, Grupo Mexico partnered with Pennsylvania-based Union Pacific to buy Mexico’s main north-south railroad for $527 million, and ended all passenger service. Two years later, Grupo Mexico bought ASARCO itself, its former parent, for $1.18 billion, gaining ownership of mines and smelters in the United States.  

Today, the corporation’s board of directors has interlocking ties with many Mexican banks and media companies, and with U.S. corporations as well. Director Claudio X. González Laporte, for instance, is board chair of Kimberley Clark de Mexico, the Mexican subsidiary of the U.S. paper giant. González Laporte is a past director of General Electric, Kellogg, Home Depot, and the Mexican media giant Televisa, and was special adviser to the Mexican president.

By the late 1990s, Grupo Mexico had a history of labor conflicts, as it reduced payroll to increase profits. In 1997, railroad workers mounted strikes over plans to reduce their workforce of 13,000 by more than half. They lost. In 1998, Cananea miners struck over company demands to trim its directly employed labor force by 1,000 jobs, while hiring non-union workers at lower wages through contractors. Threatened with military occupation of the mine, miners ended their strike, but more than 800 were not rehired.

The miners were fighting a rearguard battle to keep the wages and conditions they’d won over decades. In the 1950s and 1960s, Mexican miners had better protective laws than miners in the United States, controlling exposure to the silica dust produced by crushing ore. They made good wages and lived in homes built with government loans.

After the miners lost the 1998 strike, however, Grupo Mexico disconnected exhaust ventilation pipes on the roof of its main ore concentrator building. Dust in work areas reached knee-high levels. Grupo Mexico also closed the Hospital Ronquillo, which had provided health care to miners’ families. For 80 years, the mine had been responsible for providing water service to the town. After the strike, Grupo Mexico said the town had to fend for itself.  

When Grupo Mexico announced it was terminating 135 workers who maintained the tailings ponds, miner Rene Enriquez Leon warned that a spill could reach the headwaters of the Sonora River and the farming region downstream. “It would be an ecological disaster,” he predicted.  

In 2006, an explosion in Grupo Mexico’s Pasta de Conchos coal mine in Nueva Rosita, Coahuila, trapped 65 miners underground. After six days, the company and government authorities called off rescue attempts. The head of the union, Napoleon Gómez Urrutia, accused those responsible of “industrial homicide.” In response, the government charged him with fraud.

Gómez fled Mexico and was given sanctuary in Canada, where he’s lived with the assistance of the United Steelworkers (the union for U.S. copper miners). After years of appeals, Mexican courts threw out the charges against him. Nevertheless, Gomez continues to stay in Canada, since the government won’t guarantee his safety and freedom if he returns.

Antonio Navarette, who began working in Cananea in 1985, says that by the mid-2000s the lack of safety was producing “a psychosis of fear. Once you went in, you didn’t know if you’d come back out again.” The machinery wasn’t given preventative maintenance, he charges, including collectors for evacuating dust. Accidents grew more frequent; workers lost hands and fingers. The accelerating problems, he believes, “made it clear that the company was pushing us to go on strike. But we decided things couldn’t continue, because otherwise we were going to die there.”

For the first three years of the strike, Mexican labor law kept the company from legally operating the facility. Then the government declared the strike illegal, and in 2010, federal soldiers and police occupied the town and reopened the Cananea mine. Despite that, Seccion 65 continues to organize strike activity. The union also continued to monitor safety issues. In 2009, the miners’ strike committee warned Eduardo Bours, governor of Sonora, that “a spill that could have very serious consequences, since on April 14 the company withdrew its emergency personnel and with them the union workforce responsible for maintaining the tailings dam, which could put the population below the dam in danger.” The committee got no answer.

Five years later, the predicted spill finally occurred. At one in the morning, Navarette, a leader of the striking union, saw an appeal for help on Facebook from a doctor in Bacanuchi, the first town on the Bacanuchi River below the mine. “We went there right away,” he remembers. “The townspeople, even the children, were all crying. No one knew what could be done. Even Gila monster lizards and coyotes were fleeing from the danger.”

The strikers became the primary source of information for the affected towns, he says. “We always worried conditions in the mine could affect the communities. We began to help them organize, because we needed to join forces to get the company to listen.” That was the beginning of the Frente Rio Sonora-the Sonora River Front.

Today, the Front is headed by Marco Antonio Garcia, a farmer and former union miner from Baviacora. Garcia, whose deeply lined face shows the impact of a life working in the high desert, farms 75 acres-more than most local farmers, who cultivate just a few. When the farmers had to throw away their crops because of the contamination, he lost $33,000.  

It wasn’t just personal loss that pushed him into action. “If we don’t win, we’re lost,” he says, “and the most important thing people on the Rio Sonora will lose is their dignity.

“The Frente was organized at the urging of Seccion 65 in Cananea,” he continues. “They began visiting all the towns along the river. They had their problem with the scrapping of their union contract, and we had our problem with the river. At first, some people said the miners spent all their time fighting. But in reality, they’re involved in a big struggle. And so are we, if we want to have a future for the people of the Rio Sonora. The contamination of the river is going to last a lifetime.”

Protests first broke out in Ures, a month after the spill. “We started marching and blocking the highway,” recalls Lupita Poom, who now heads the Frente there. “These were all peaceful demonstrations, and hundreds of people took part. That’s when we began to meet the leaders from other towns on the river.” And as Navarette and other miners from Seccion 65 helped local groups get started, a bigger plan took shape. “We decided to do another planton [an organized encampment, like Occupy Wall Street], but this one directed at the mine,” Poom says.  

Martha Agupira says that when the miners came to Tahuichopa to invite people to the protest, “the municipal president told us that soldiers would come, and we’d be thrown in jail. But by then we had nothing, so why not go?”