Arizpe, Mexico – Complaints and inquiries have been pouring into the office of Arizpe Mayor Vidal Guadalupe Vazquez Chacon on a daily basis.
All come from the residents of his small town of 4,000, and all have to do with one basic thing: water.
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After a toxic spill from a mine contaminated the Sonora River in August, farmers in Arizpe haven’t been able to irrigate their fields. A subsequent series of spills and heavy rain has only exacerbated their problems.
“People are clamouring,” Chacon told Al Jazeera. “We’ve lost everything. Our lands are drowning in water. This is one disaster on top of another.”
He doesn’t hide his frustration with Grupo Mexico, the mining conglomerate responsible for what has been called the “worst natural disaster” in Mexico in recent times, after 38 million litres of copper sulphate spilled into two rivers on August 6, in northern Sonora state, about 50 kilometres from the US border.
The toxic spill has nearly crippled productivity in seven towns along the river. Twenty-two thousand residents have no running water. In some towns, if there is potable water, it is only available for a few hours each day. The farming, dairy, and cattle industries continue to suffer daily losses.
The situation has only worsened since heavy rain from Hurricane Odile and new leaks from the Buenavista del Cobre mine, which is also run by Grupo Mexico.
The latest leaks spilled into the Bacanuchi, Sonora, and the San Pedro Rivers. Officials from the Federal Attorney General for Environmental Protection in Mexico said the new spills were caused by heavy rain and did not pose health or safety hazards. But many are concerned over the potential toxicity levels.
US officials began looking into the matter after a “small overflow” of the leak from the San Pedro River flowed across the border into the US. The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) is awaiting results from samples taken to determine the presence of metals in the river.
A temporary dam built by Grupo Mexico on the Bacanuchi River was also breached, creating even more uncertainty.
“We are going to wait for further evaluation to see what was the content [or toxicity level of the water] of that dam,” said Chacon. “But it would be a lack of respect to us for an accident of the same magnitude to happen again.”
Grupo Mexico confirmed to Al Jazeera that there were leaks of water from containment ponds because of heavy rain on September 17 and 18, but said the spills were not toxic. The mining company blamed the first disaster on torrential rain, but later admitted the spill had to do with structural damage in the mine. After the spill, Grupo Mexico set up a $150m trust fund to cover damages.
Chacon is cautiously optimistic that the situation can be contained. “It [the fund] gives us some measure of peace, but there are still many questions about how those funds would be managed and distributed,” he said.
Arizpe, like six of the other towns affected by the spill, originally received half a million pesos ($41,000) from Grupo Mexico, which was deposited into the town’s bank account days after the incident.
There was no documentation or agreement attached to it, said Chacon. Grupo Mexico explained in a press release the money was given “to support environmental services and to pay personnel for the distribution of water, fuels, and various other materials related to the filtration”.
‘We have to stay vigilant’
The mayors of the affected towns recently founded an association to work together to find solutions for the aftermath. They are also considering filing a lawsuit for reparations and damages, if Grupo Mexico doesn’t comply with their demands for restitution, said Jesus Romo, a local rancher and attorney advising the group.
“We have to stay vigilant and make sure they’re really doing their job,” said Romo.
They say they'll pay for the damages. How are they going to pay me for a tree that took six years to grow and give fruit? That tree could have still produced for 25 years. How do you measure that?
The spill has had devastating effects for many across the region. “Our way of life has changed completely. It’s like we are back 60 years ago,” Pedro Armando Lugo Lopez, mayor of Aconchi, told Al Jazeera. “There are people we don’t know roaming our town at night.”
Those strangers are employees from Grupo Mexico, he said, who are distributing water door-to-door.
Indeed, Grupo Mexico’s presence is visible in all the towns. Posters from the mine are displayed on street posts as if an election were taking place: “The river is yours and it’s our priority. We’re working together to bring it back to you.”
A newspaper spread run by Grupo Mexico on September 1, directed at Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, asked him to ensure the company does not receive “discriminatory treatment”, to avoid scaring away investment.
“We regret the incident that took place last August 6th and the impact caused to the populations on the river and the environment,” it read, reiterating its commitment to compensate affected communities.
But for Mayor Chacon, it’s more than just money.
“They say they’ll pay for the damages. How are they going to pay me for a tree that took six years to grow and give fruit?” said Chacon. “That tree could have still produced for 25 years. How do you measure that?”
‘An immense danger’
In the town of Banamichi, a new non-governmental organisation called Pueblos Unidos al Rescate de los Rios Sonora y Bacanuchi – (United Towns for the Rescue of the Rivers Sonora and Bacanuchi) – held a community meeting to update residents on the situation. Pena said a new water well is being dug, and residents should have running water within weeks.
Romo then warned the residents about a containment pond holding wastewater from the mine, which, if it were to leak or overflow into the Sonora River, could have potentially disastrous consequences.
“If that one spills, the towns from the Sonora River would disappear. It’s an immense danger,” he told the crowd, adding, however, it was not involved in recent leaks.
Grupo Mexico did not respond to an Al Jazeera inquiry about the conditions of the tailings deposit and containment pond. The company did, however, emphasise its ongoing clean-up efforts, as well as its distribution of water and installation of water purification plants for those affected.
Since August 8, the company has distributed more than 42 million litres of water and employed 1,200 people in the emergency effort.
Loyda Valdez Bueldna, a resident of Banamichi and spokeswoman for the NGO, told Al Jazeera that some distrust the mine because of its handling of previous accidents. In 2006, for instance, 65 miners died in the Pasta de Conchos coal mine owned by Grupo Mexico in the state of Coahuila. Only two bodies were recovered.
“We open the doors for them to work on our lands,” said Chacon. “And now they contaminated them – and poison us.”
Follow Valeria Fernandez on Twitter: @valfernandez