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Friday, March 7, 2014
- The Coatzacoalcos river basin in southern Mexico is so polluted that you can sense the mercury in the air, feel it and breathe it, and the population living in the area is only too aware of its undesirable neighbours: refineries and petrochemical complexes that emit this toxic element into the air and water.
“People are concerned about the situation and want solutions. We are talking to the communities in order to take strong action,” activist Isaúl Rodríguez, head of the Tatexco Ecological Producers Association (APETAT), told IPS from the affected area.
This NGO has some 2,500 members whose livelihoods are affected by their location close to the petrochemical plants and refineries established in the basin, in the southeastern state of Veracruz.
Their plight illustrates the problems associated with emission and management of mercury faced by Mexico, just as the fifth and final round of negotiations for an International Treaty on Mercury is being held Jan. 14-18 in Geneva. This will be the first legally binding global treaty to limit mercury emissions.
A study released on Jan. 9 about the petrochemical industry in the Coatzacoalcos river basin, which has implications in the context of ongoing international treaty negotiations, was eloquent in stating reasons for concern.
The average mercury level in the samples of human hair from the Coatzacoalcos basin was 1.7 times the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reference dose of one part per million.
The results “make us worry about the problem we face. People wonder whether they are going to die, or what will happen if they seek medical treatment. It’s a difficult social and economic problem,” Lorenzo Bozada, head of Ecología y Desarrollo Sostenible en Coatzacoalcos (Ecology and Sustainable Development in Coatzacoalcos), an NGO, told IPS.
Bozada took part in taking samples and writing the research report, together with two other independent organisations: the Mexican Centre for Analysis and Action on Toxins and their Alternatives (CAATA) and the Arnika Association of the Czech Republic.
The report is part of the Global Fish and Community Mercury Monitoring Project, coordinated by the International Persistent Organic Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) and the U.S. Biodiversity Research Institute (BRI).
The study covered 25 municipalities, with a population of close to two million people and economic activities that include fishing, livestock raising and cultivating maize, squash and fruit.
The state General Lázaro Cárdenas refinery, which processes 285,000 barrels per day (bpd) of crude oil, is located at Minatitlán, on the banks of the Coatzacoalcos river, while in the nearby city of Coatzacoalcos, on the same river, is the state Pajaritos petrochemical complex, in whose grounds a private chlor-alkali plant operates, using mercury in its manufacturing process.
Exposure to mercury, which is naturally present in air, soil and water, can harm the nervous, immune and digestive systems, the skin, lungs, kidneys and eyes. It is also harmful to foetal neurological development.Bacteria and other microorganisms convert mercury to methylmercury, which can accumulate in the food chain, especially in fish.
The toxic element enters soil and water through the use of fertilisers, small scale artisanal gold mining, the use of mercury thermometers, and energy saving light bulbs.
The case of the Coatzacoalcos river basin does not appear to be unique in the country, although there are not enough data to be sure.
A 2012 study, “Patterns of Global Seafood Mercury Concentrations and their Relationship with Human Health,” conducted by David Evers, Madeline Turnquist and David Bucks, all researchers at the BRI, indicates that the highest mercury concentrations are found in the Gulfs of California and Mexico, on the border with the United States.
“Mexico’s policies are inadequate. There is a need for a more systematic programme on the presence of mercury at the national level, and for more work on critical areas, like this river basin,” the head of CAATA, Fernando Bejarano, told IPS before travelling to Geneva for the final negotiations of the treaty, which has been promoted since 2009 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
Mercury Watch, an international alliance, says that small scale artisanal gold mining emitted 7.5 tonnes of mercury in Mexico in 2010, when the country exported 134.24 tonnes of mercury and imported 13.89 tonnes, almost all from the United States.
The Mexican Mercury Market Report for 2011, prepared by José Castro for the Commission for Environmental Cooperation of North America, estimates there are nearly 27 million tonnes of mercury waste, accumulated in mines and the chlor-alkali industry.
Trade in mercury is a challenge for Mexico because the European Union has banned exports since 2011, while the United States has prohibited exports of elemental mercury effective Jan. 1, 2013, making it difficult for Mexico to acquire the metal.
Mexican policy has focused on studying domestic issues related to mercury and withdrawing its use from hospitals, as shown in the letter sent to the UNEP in August 2010, when Mexico joined the Mercury Products Partnership. But it does not address recycling.
In another letter sent on Aug. 31 by the Directorate General for Global Issues of the Office of the Undersecretary for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights, to the UNEP Division of Technology, Industry and Economics, the Mexican government stated that the minimum limits for reporting emissions and transfers of mercury and its compounds are one and five kilogrammes a year, respectively.
“PEMEX (the Mexican state oil company) must take responsibility for reducing and monitoring mercury emissions, and it has a historic environmental debt towards the people who live in this region. The Health Secretariat (ministry) should carry out a clinical and epidemiological assessment of the impacts and take steps to reduce exposure,” Bozada said.
The IPEN network is critical of the draft treaty on the table because it does not demand clean-up of contaminated sites, payment for bio-remediation or compensation for accident victims. It also absolves the oil and gas sector of responsibilities.
“Mexico should achieve a higher commitment in these sectors,” said CAATA’s Bejarano about the treaty, which, if all goes as planned, will be signed in October by the 128 states participating in the negotiations.
But for producers like Rodríguez, the head of APETAT, the treaty is a pipe dream and there are few other options. “To begin with (there) could be a ban fishing, so that fishers are not exposed to mercury, and then it is essential that the polluting companies help the people,” he said.