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MEXICO: O’odham Nation Fights Toxic Waste Dump

Emilio Godoy

MEXICO CITY, May 21 2010 (IPS) - The Tohono O’odham indigenous people are counting the days to the October expiry date of the permit granted to a toxic waste management company for a landfill dump in their territory, in the northern Mexican state of Sonora.

In October 2005, the environment and natural resources ministry (SEMARNAT) authorised CEGIR, a private company, to operate a hazardous waste disposal site known as La Choya in the municipality of General Plutarco Elías Calles, 2,200 kilometres north of the Mexican capital.

But the dump, with a capacity for 45,000 tonnes of waste a year, was prevented from operating by the municipal council’s refusal to accept it, combined with the opposition of the local community and non-governmental organisations.

“It’s a clear-cut case of environmental injustice,” Marisa Jacott, an activist with the Fronteras Comunes (Common Borders) organisation that has fought the toxic waste dump, told IPS. “But now there’s a chance that the permit will not be renewed.”

The Tohono O’odham nation, numbering some 12,000 people, straddles the Mexico-U.S. border, living in Sonora and the U.S. state of Arizona.

Apparently CEGIR has not yet applied for an extension of the permit, and in any case the municipal government’s authorisation would be required to operate the dump. However, the council’s decision blocking it has still not been formally issued.

Toxic waste storage sites are a pollution risk for underground water tables and a threat to the health of surrounding communities.

In Mexico only two such waste dumps are in operation, but six more have been authorised by the central government, including La Choya. In Sonora there is also an abandoned dump known as CYTRAR (Confinamiento y Tratamiento de Residuos), where clean-up of 2,300 tonnes of toxic waste in the open-air landfill site began in 2005.

This dump epitomises the difficulties of managing the six million tonnes of toxic waste produced every year in Mexico.

CYTRAR was operated by a Spanish company, Técnicas Medioambientales de México (TECMED) from 1996 to November 1998, when it was shut down by the Mexican authorities after lead, mercury, manganese, solvents and automobile batteries were illegally dumped there, according to global environmental watchdog Greenpeace.

Because of the closure, TECMED sued the Mexican state in 2003 under the terms of the Mexico-European Union Free Trade Agreement that came into force in 2000. The company won the suit and received 7.5 million dollars in compensation.

Furthermore, 40 million tonnes of mine tailings — piles of crushed rock left over after metals have been removed — have been dumped in the Sonora municipality of Nacozari.

Environmental authorities want Sonora to take 25 percent of the country’s total toxic waste, when this state only produces one percent of the total.

“We wonder why Sonora has been targeted in this way. The proportion proposed is extremely high,” said Jacott, whose organisation has started the México Tóxico (Toxic Mexico) project to make information available about pollution and hazardous waste, and to combat the health effects of exposure to toxic dump sites.

There are nearly 300 such sites across the country.

In Sonora, polluting chemicals are generated by cement, agrochemical and automotive industries, as well as thermoelectric plants.

A total of 2,510 industrial enterprises nationwide report their data to the Pollutant Release and Transfer Register kept by SEMARNAT, the latest results of which were published in 2005.

At least 49 companies in Sonora had to register their data.

Among the chemical substances included in the register are persistent organic pollutants, metals and metal compounds, aromatic hydrocarbons, pesticides and greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide.

SEMARNAT is implementing a programme to develop a database and risk evaluation information system for contaminated sites, at seven places including CYTRAR and Nacozari. But the information is not available to the public.

A law on prevention and comprehensive management of waste, in effect since 2004, sets guidelines for the management of hazardous waste. There are also at least four official sets of regulations on waste disposal and handling.

The waste management law defines the substances that must be reported to the federal government as air, water, soil and subsoil pollutants, hazardous materials and wastes, persistent organic pollutants, greenhouse gases and ozone-depleting substances.

The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, signed in 2001 and in force since 2004, which seeks to eliminate or restrict production of a series of pollutants like dioxins and furans, also contains measures for curbing risk and exposure at contaminated sites.

“Remediation of (contaminated) sites is supposed to be carried out. But they only send the waste elsewhere and then shut down the dump. There is no effective remediation,” Jacott complained.

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