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MEXICO: Communities Win Against Silver Producing Giant

Drillbits & Tailings (Project Underground)
May 15th, 1999

The northwestern city of Torreon in the Mexican state of Coahuila will get a high-tech vaccum cleaning from one of the world's largest silver producing companies, Industrias Penoles. The clean-up was ordered by the Coahuilas state government after company's toxic waste practices were linked to lead poisoning in children.

Industrias Penoles has been ordered to set up a US$6.4 million healthcare fund to treat victims as well as relocate people living near their slag heap; as well as plant trees and scour the city with high-tech vacuum cleaners to decontaminate homes of the toxic slag-tainted dust. The company began vacuuming the streets of Torreon six weeks ago in an unprecedented environmental cleanup.

Bismuth, gold, lead, and silver are refined at the Penoles plant and the waste product known as slag is dumped onto a pile that towers over the Luis Echeverria neighborhood. Torreon has a population of 507,800 located some 500 miles (800 kilometers) north-northwest of Mexico City.

People living near the slag pile have been found with more than 60 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood. According to state officials, of the 2,281 children and pregnant women tested in Torreon, 1,166 had more than the acceptable level of 25 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood.

The neighborhood of Luis Echeverria, which lies in the shadows of the slag heap and the refinery, began its battle against Penoles in 1984 after a study by the Autonomous University of Coahuila found high levels of lead in childrens' blood. Another study was done in 1995 by two other universities and finally when a private clinic confirmed these results, the mothers of Luis Echeverria brought a formal suit against the company.

"Our children have been poisoned, mutilated," said Eva Mendiola, the leader of a group of mothers who are enraged at what they say could be one of Mexico's worst environmental catastrophes.

Coahuila officials say that they have mostly noticed listlessness and a lack of appetite in children who were likely contaminated by breathing slag-tainted dust. Lead poisoning can impair a number of internal organs, cause headaches, hemorrhages, behavioral disorders, anemia and delayed mental development and even cause paralysis.

For the Canales family lead poisoning is a severe reality. Of its 13 members, 12 have lead levels above 25 micrograms per deciliter of blood. Of those, three children are in hospital with lead levels of more than 70 micrograms.

Environmentalists celebrated the cleanup as a precedent in cracking down on Mexico's industrial polluters, who normally dump dangerous waste without any punishment or regulation.

"It's a landmark agreement. It's something we haven't seen even in the United States. This is a landmark not just for Mexico but for North America," said Caroline Hotaling of the Border Ecology Project in Bisbee, Arizona.

The company in a move to cut pollution has agreed to shut down one smelter, but it believes that moving the refinery is not a solution because 5,000 families depend upon it, directly or indirectly, for their livelihoods. Chief executive Manuel Luevanos of the Penoles unit which runs the refinery, also claims that 90% of lead poisoning comes from the ground and only 10% from emissions.

Many residents think the government response is inadequate, and are demanding Penoles pay them to move. The company is planning a survey to find out how many people want to be moved to new homes.

"I want them to move me but without that, the company can escape its responsibilities for the damage it has caused me and my home," said Raquel Guillen.


Further Reading

Lead Dust in the Wind Withers Mexican Children by Julia Preston, New York Times, 5/30/1999.
Mexico Sees an Ill Wind Blow in Silent Epidemic by Henry Tricks, Financial Times, 5/14/1999.