BACANUCHI, SONORA — Thelma Irene Moiza Ozuna woke up in the middle of the night with an unbearable itch. When she went to wash herself the next morning, she had bleeding wounds on her legs and her skin was red from her ankles to her thighs. Almost seven years later, such skin reactions are still frequent.
The newest town doctor says she is having allergies, but Moiza can trace the first symptoms back to the day she crossed the Bacanuchi river to tend after the plot she farms for a living — a week or so after the historical mining spill of Aug. 6, 2014.
Nearly 11 million gallons of copper sulfate came down the river that day from Buenavista del Cobre — the second largest copper mine in the world, about 25 miles south of the Arizona border — and to this day, Moiza and thousands of residents down the river still wonder if this is the cause of some of their ailments.
Without a water treatment plant running and no health services in place for more than three years, the community took legal action. In May 2020, six women from Bacanuchi, including Moiza, filed a claim on behalf of their children over the lack of health services. Less than a month later, Mexican authorities and the company responsible for the spill rehabilitated the town clinic and assigned a permanent doctor. The legal case is still open and echoes similar issues throughout the Río Sonora watershed, where communities affected by the spill are still claiming due reparations.
Where it began
Bacanuchi is a small community that lives off agriculture, ranching and remittances from relatives living in the United States. One wide dirt road stretches across the town — a couple of blocks long — connecting the church, the plaza and the main store. West of town flows the Bacanuchi river. Greenery and tall trees line the banks and the water runs so generously in the summer that for years it attracted local tourism.
The town is just 25 miles south of Cananea, where the mine operations are, and many residents cross the river daily to tend after their fields and cattle. So when the spill happened, they were the first to know. The town of Bacanuchi received the first hit of toxic waste — around 700 tons containing copper, arsenic, aluminum, iron, cadmium, lead, manganese and chromium. Heavy metals ran downstream into Río Sonora, affecting in total around 160 miles of rivers and creeks, and more than 24,000 people.
It is still considered the worst environmental disaster in the history of mining in Mexico.
The mine said the spill was an overflow from the rains. After proper investigation, Mexican authorities found that Grupo México, the company that runs Buenavista del Cobre and operates three copper mines in Arizona through its subsidiary Asarco, was responsible for 55 irregularities previous to the spill. They lacked permits, response protocols and a valve that could have stopped the spill; the tragedy was preventable and caused by neglect. The Mexican Federal Attorney for Environmental Protection fined Grupo México around 22.9 million pesos — about $1.5 million in U.S. dollars based on the exchange rate at the time.
In 2014, Mexico’s Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources ordered the company to create a $150 million trust to remediate the environmental, health and economic impacts from the spill. The Río Sonora Trust operated through a technical committee that included designated members from the environmental department and third parties.
Human rights organizations, Mexican authorities and nonprofits advocating for the case have found numerous issues with transparency and use of funds along the way, and many of the trust’s reparations are incomplete.
The trust spent four times more funds in a “social communication strategy” — running promotional spots of the river remediation in cinemas, among other things — than in direct payments to residents with health issues related to the spill, according to Poder, a nonprofit working to improve corporate accountability in Latin America that has worked closely with residents of Río Sonora since the spill.
The Rio Sonora Trust is obligated to monitor health and environmental damages and provide attention through a specialized epidemiological unit until 2029. The construction of such a unit stopped less than two years after the spill and remains unfinished. Instead, the trust opened a small provisional clinic in a townhouse to tend to 381 people that showed health effects from exposure to heavy metals.
A mobile unit from Mexico’s Secretary of Health, comprised of 25 medical specialists, toured the region a year after the spill. They gave medical attention, performed diagnostics and prescribed blood and urine exams to test for heavy metals. Moiza and four other Bacanuchi residents say not everyone was considered in the first screening.
They called in Moiza’s husband, Jesus Arturo Vázquez Rivera, to be tested. His scalp had wounds and his body itched, but they didn’t find traces of heavy metals. When the couple asked for tests for Moiza, the unit said the request had to be processed. Moiza said the unit never came back or contacted her.
Hector Duarte Tagles, an epidemiologist and professor with the Department of Medicine and Health Science at the University of Sonora, also met many residents with symptoms from contamination who weren’t treated and sought tests with their own money. He became a member and volunteer of the Border Network of Health and Environment, a multidisciplinary nonprofit working in the region.
The trust should monitor thoroughly the long-term health consequences of the spill, beyond acute effects, Duarte said.
“There is a potential risk that the kids start developing problems of renal insufficiency, cognitive impairment or different types of cancer,” Duarte said, explaining that chronic exposure can have cumulative effects, and children are among the most vulnerable groups.
There is evidence that there continue to be high levels of lead, manganese and cadmium in many communities, he said. Furthermore, he believes there could be more contaminants than the 13 listed by the trust.
Less than three years later after the spill and having spent only 61% of the designated funds, Grupo México and Mexican environmental authorities said the Río Sonora Trust had fulfilled its purpose and closed it unilaterally. An investigation by the nonprofit Fundar, published in 2018, declares there is no evidence that public entities like Mexico’s secretary of Environment and Natural Resources monitored the goals and conditions of the trust’s contract.
“They don’t care about the communities; they don’t care about anything,” says Moiza referring to all the Mexican authorities involved.
With the legal help of Poder, 36 community members from the Río Sonora Watershed Committee, an organization of residents affected by the spill, filed a legal action to protect their constitutional and human rights. In January 2020, the Second Chamber of Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled in their favor and declared the trust cannot be closed until it meets its purpose — to remediate and compensate for the health and environmental damages caused by the spill. The court determined that the trust violated the rights of the Watershed Committee representatives when it closed the trust without a due consultation process.
On May 22 and 23, in the Regional Museum of Ures, Sonora, the Mexican Federal Attorney for Environmental Protection will hold a public meeting with Committee representatives, environmental authorities and the mining company to hear community demands and resolve the corrective measures that should follow.
A failed water treatment system
Five-gallon water jugs sit on Moiza’s kitchen counter. For around six years, the family has made the daily expense of buying water from the store so they don’t have to drink from the tap — something that didn’t worry them before the 2014 mine spill.
Moiza said the cost weighs on her family, but she would rather spend the money than expose herself and her family to untreated water.
Coming into Bacanuchi, on a high hill that overlooks the town, is a large inactive water treatment facility. The two tall water towers meant to do oxidation-filtration processes are disconnected from the large water reservoir that now feeds untreated well water to residents’ homes.
“Each water treatment plant has its own disgrace story,” said Luis Franco, a community coordinator working through Poder with members of the Committee.
A mix of lack of payments, missing parts and administrative issues affected the fate of the few water treatment plants that ever came to existence. Only one plant operates intermittently today, according to documents from Mexico’s national water commission.
The trust’s initial commitment was to build 37 water treatment plants to serve around 24,000 people affected by the spill. Then they reduced it to 27 and later to nine. Grupo México argued that the results from water quality studies showed a sharp reduction in the levels of heavy metal pollution. By the time they decided to build less than a third of the plants, in 2017, the trust had only concluded the construction of the one in Bacanuchi.
Since its inauguration in August 2016, Bacanuchi’s plant has worked on and off.
IDEAS, the company that won the bid to install it, hired two Bacanuchi residents as construction workers and later trained them to operate the plant. Less than a month after launching operations, the plant wasn’t working because of lack of electricity, according to local newspapers. Then it started running with a diesel generator, but when the company’s contract expired, it was the workers who paid the price.
Jorge Alberto Bustamante López, one of the two operators, said they started spending their own money on fuel — around $35 twice a month.
“So we could all have clean water. It was a benefit for us and for others,” Bustamante said. “I thought of the kids.”
Before the plant was built and in the months when it was not working, Bustamante had a skin reaction that left welts and pimples on his shin, he said. For around eight months he would see it let up and then come back. He isn’t sure what caused it. Similar to Moiza, he said he didn’t receive tests from the medical unit.
The Water Commission created a seven-month contract in 2018 with the former owner of IDEAS, biotechnologist and bioremediation specialist Arturo Aguilar-Aguila Acuña. He paid Bustamante and the other worker directly, and when the contract expired, he bought the supplies with his money “under the promise of a contract renovation,” he said. Bustamante and the other worker continued without contract.
Sometime in 2019, after essentially volunteering on-and-off for nearly two years, they refused to continue working without pay, Bustamante said.
“We had to remain strong so someone would come and talk to us. They weren’t paying attention,” he said, referring to the water commission.
Records from the water commission, dated December 2019, confirm that the Bacanuchi water treatment plan was not running due to lack of payment to the operators. In 2019, Aguilar-Aguila and Bustamante said they handed the keys of the plant to the municipality of Arizpe, which took over the responsibility running it ever since.
“They didn’t want to take care of it because they said that it was ‘too much of an expense,’” said Bustamante.
Aguilar-Aguila said that while he operated the plant, the total costs including utilities, transportation, salaries and supplies was approximately $1,000 a month.
The municipality’s water director Sergio Navarro Dorame did not respond to numerous requests from the Star to comment on why the plant is not operating and what actions the municipality has taken to fix it.
Uncertainty of health risks
Given the magnitude of the environmental damage, the trust was bound to monitor water quality consistently for at least five years across the Río Sonora watershed. Research papers and the trust’s website show that data gathering has been inconsistent, often skipping monitoring for months or years at some sites or measuring only one set of indicators.
In 2017, Grupo México shut down the trust, arguing that contamination was under control — as Mexican authorities also did in different levels of government, even ordering that closed wells along Río Sonora reopen.
But last November, the Federal Committee for Protection from Sanitary Risks in Mexico sent a letter saying that monitoring results from August 2019, March 2020 and July 2020 show arsenic contamination above the health limits in around 80% of the wells sampled and lead contamination in around 50%. Another 2019 study found levels of mercury above the permissible health limit. The use of water is a risk to residents’ health, the letter said.
Numerous factors can cause variations on arsenic readings due to errors in sampling and analysis, to changes in the level of the aquifer, or sudden sewage discharges, says Nadia Martínez Villegas, a biogeochemist and expert on the mobility and contamination of arsenic in water and soil. Although the levels of arsenic can vary, when sample design, monitoring and analysis are done properly, data speaks for itself, she said.
Bacanuchi water showed no contamination by arsenic when the wells of the Río Sonora watershed were first sampled, said Aguilar-Aguila.
Data available in the trust’s website shows groundwater arsenic levels under the permissible health limit until December 2014 and then shows no data at all.
“Despite being closest to the spill, in the (Bacanuchi) well, only iron was out of the norm,” says Aguilar-Aguila, who worked alongside environmental authorities and research institutions to determine what kind of treatment plant had to be installed in Bacanuchi.
The oxidation-filtration plant installed is not designed for long-term treatment of other metals that are not iron and manganese, but it does have the capacity to respond to sudden spikes in the concentration of arsenic, Aguilar-Aguila said.
However, when water and soil present pH changes, metals can mobilize across the watershed in unpredictable ways. Duarte, a health researcher working with the University of Sonora, says that communities close to Hermosillo, almost 150 miles down the river, show arsenic levels above the health limit established by the World Health Organization.
“We know very little about what is going in the aquifer. Until we do a map of the plume of contaminants, which is very expensive, we will never know where metals are stopping,” Aguilar-Aguila said.
Some residents of Bacanuchi say they don’t receive the results from water studies.
“Supposedly they are still monitoring (water contamination), but they never send the results. It’s said that they send it to the municipality, and they say the water is fine,” Moiza said.
Even if they don’t drink the tap water, residents are bathing and washing their clothes with it. Moiza and several Bacanuchi residents, including the recently-appointed town doctor, said that they itch after showering. For many like Moiza, rashes, pimples and other skin reactions come and go periodically. The town doctor prescribed an antifungal cream for Moiza that sometimes helps easing the pain and itch.
Outside of Moiza and Vázquez’s house, a plastic water tank with a sticker from the Río Sonora Trust stores untreated well water.
“What do we want water tanks for?” Vázquez said, laughing. “What we wanted was clean water. The tank is fine, but we have nothing to put in it.”
Fighting to be heard, served
Bacanuchi is unlike other communities in the watershed. Bad roads, lack of public transport and poor phone signals create a digital and physical isolation, making it harder for residents to access medical attention and participate in political discussions in the region, explains Luis Franco, Poder’s community coordinator.
“The geographic and political reality of Bacanuchi is very different from one in other parts of the watershed,” Franco said, explaining that residents are not as likely to participate in county discussions or have meaningful representation.
Gloria Simpson, a Bacanuchi resident, explained that it was no longer enough to ask the municipality for health services, so they took legal action.
“Authorities had been ignoring us for too long. We had been demanding a doctor for years,” Simpson said.
On behalf of their kids, Simpson and five other Bacanuchi women filed a legal action against the governor of Sonora, as well as state and local health and transportation departments on May 7, 2020. They claimed that lack of medical attention and transportation was a violation of their rights and a threat to their integrity.
Cynthia Amarillo Arco Lhor, the lawyer with Poder, the nonprofit that led the case, says the court system was stalled by COVID-19, but urgent cases — including those concerning children’s rights — were coming through.
A judge dictated protective measures 24 hours after receiving the case, and by June 6, 2020, the health department of Sonora, the Arizpe municipality and representatives of Grupo Mexico held a public event to announce the operation of the clinic and the hire of a permanent town doctor, Estefanía Gastelum Burruel.
“They held a big event to obscure the women’s fight and said it was out of the government’s own volition, and that they were very worried. It was all done out of the government’s good will, which was nonexistent by the way,” said Franco, Poder’s community coordinator
Arco, the lawyer with Poder, says that the legal case is still open, as the community still lacks proper roads and transportation to get them medical help in an emergency.
Just months ago in late March, Gastelum had to drive a 1988 Caravan, the only vehicle available for the town clinic, to take a 76-year-old woman who had a case of gastrointestinal bleeding. The old vehicle is not suited to transport people with severe medical needs and in the rainy season, it might not even make it through the road, Franco said.
The Río Sonora Committee won the case to keep the trust open, however they are still fighting in court for the establishment of an epidemiological monitoring unit, proper water quality monitoring and the operation of the water treatment plants.
“The judge didn’t take it as an urgent case because there wasn’t an absolute absence of water treatment plants or absolute absence of medical attention,” Arco said.
Under these conditions, almost seven years after the tragedy and without a clear end in sight, Bacanuchi residents face a new threat. In 2016, Buenavista del Cobre copper mine started the construction of a new massive tailing dam. The structure, which stores toxic waste from the mine’s operation, is over 500 feet tall and 6 miles long. It can store 80,000 times more volume than what was spilled in 2014. Bacanuchi is right under the area of impact of the dam; in an accident, it could be washed away.
In September 2018, Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled that the company had violated the rights of the community by not informing them nor allowing public participation.
Moiza traveled to Geneva on Nov. 27, 2018, to talk before the United Nations’ Forum on Business and Human Rights about injustices in the Río Sonora case. Simpson went after her in 2019. Both represent the Río Sonora Watershed Committee and spoke about their fear of Grupo México’s new project.
“I am glad that other people know now. That they know about the corruption going on in our country,” she said.
Last August, six years after the spill, they demanded six urgent actions: clean and sufficient water, secure access to health care, put communities before mines, ensure community participation in the trust actions, the cancellation of the new tailings dam and revive economic activities in the municipalities affected.
“Nothing is safe here anymore,” said Moiza thinking of how they used to bathe in the river and take water up for house chores before the spill.
“But what is worse is that it goes unpunished.”
Clara Migoya is a University of Arizona journalism student apprenticing with the Arizona Daily Star.
Miguel Grageda is a conservation photographer, and a doctoral candidate at the School of Natural Resources and the Environment at the University of Arizona. Contact him at email@example.com