Rio Sonora Residents Still Fighting For Relief 7 Years After Mining Spill

By Kendal Blust
Published: Friday, August 6, 2021 - 5:46am

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Rio Sonora
Kendal Blust/KJZZ
The Rio Sonora flows through the town of Baviácora, Sonora, on July 30, 2019.

It’s been seven years since a mining spill in neighboring Sonora, considered the worst mining disaster in Mexican history. But residents say the mining company and the government have yet to fully remediate the damage.

On Aug. 6, 2014, Grupo México’s Buenavista Copper mine spilled nearly 11 million gallons of toxic waste into the Bacanuchi and Sonora rivers, affecting more than 20,000 people living downstream.

Seven years later many of those residents are still fighting for basic remediation, access to clean water and health care.

"There has to be a comprehensive plan," said Franscisca Garcia, a member of the Rio Sonora Watershed Committees that have for years been demanding action from the mine and the government, and this week submitted a new petition to environmental authorities laying out seven key remediation actions.

Those include relocating contaminated wells and setting up long-promised water purification plants; opening a clinic focused on addressing health issues caused by contamination and heavy metals; and holding Grupo México accountable for the damage it's caused.

Part of that includes the management of a trust fund set up after the spill that was reopened after a Supreme Court ruling last year that concluded it was closed prematurely. Garcia said it's essential that this time around members of the affected communities have a voice and vote in how those funds are spent.

"We're still here. We're still fighting, and we're not going to stop," she said. "We're still facing the same problems that we've had for seven years, but I can say it's only gotten worse. Because we're not just the victims of the spill, but also of all the unfulfilled responsibilities of the mining company, that hasn't faced any repercussions. And of the government that hasn't taken action."

Garcia said life has been turned upside down for people in the eight municipalities downstream from the mine. Many people, including children, have ongoing health issues from exposure to heavy metals. Crops that were once allowed communities to be self-sufficient don't grow the same way. And families face the economic burden or paying for medications to treat what they believe are illnesses caused by the spill, and purified water for drinking and bathing, she said.

"The river is central to life here, for plants and animals, and for the people who live in this region," she said. "We all depend on that water, and now we can't trust it."

Environmental officials have met with members of the community in recent years, making assurances that long-promised restoration is imminent, but Garcia and others say words aren't enough. What they need is safe water and healthcare for their communities.

Fronteras Sonora Social Justice