Tailings Spill Exposed at Mexican Mine

Failed cover-up reveals shortcomings of industry self-regulation

The Mexican government has ordered mining company Exportaciones de Minerales de Topia (EMISTA) to close a zinc and lead mine in the municipality of Canelas, Durango after the company spilled close to 6,000 cubic meters of mine waste while reportedly operating without the required environmental permits. 

EMISTA alerted authorities to a six thousand liter (six cubic meters) tailings spill on May 1st (tailings are a mine waste product containing crushed rock, chemicals and water usually stored as a slurry behind dams). However, after investigating, the The Federal Attorney of Environmental Protection (PROFEPA in Spanish) and the National Water Commission (CONAGUA in Spanish) found the spill was almost 1,000 times larger, the result of a rupture in a tailings dam that had been filled beyond its capacity. 

PROFEPA ordered the immediate temporary closure of the mine and filed criminal charges against the company with the Federal Attorney General’s office for lying about the amount of the spill. The company was also ordered to reinforce the dam and clean the surrounding area. Mexican T.V. station Excelsior reported that CONAGUA will file for the permanent closure of the mine because the company was using water from a local spring for mining operations without the appropriate water permits.

The spill has reached at least 5 kilometers downstream to the town of San Bernabé. While CONAGUA is telling local residents that drinking water has not been affected, downstream communities are skeptical. Residents worry that if there is a heavy rain the tailings could contaminate the Huyama River, which could affect drinking water for many communities downstream. Local governments have created alternative water sources for livestock in areas already affected by the spill. A video of the effects of the spill can be seen here.

Environmental organizations see this spill as yet another example of the dangerous practices of extractive industries in Mexico and the inability of the government to adequately protect its citizens. The Mexican Network of Mining Affected Communities (REMA in Spanish) released a statement saying mining companies have not incorporated necessary precautions into their daily operations and that the rupture of a tailings dam from oversaturation implies negligence and insufficient and irresponsible management from the company and the corresponding authorities who should be supervising in order to ensure prevention.

Joel Retamoza, the president of the Environmental Alliance of Sinaloa, told reporters the PROFEPA, as the authority responsible for environmental damages, does not even have the necessary elements to keep up with carrying out inspections that should be done at least twice a year and to ensure that these companies don’t continue causing environmental damages. 

Earthworks supports REMA’s calls for a serious, thorough and exemplary investigation that leads to results and convictions, like the permanent closure of Exportaciones de Minerales de Topia. The attempt by EMISTA to cover-up the severity of its spill shines a spotlight on the dangers of a mining industry left to regulate itself. Across the globe, industry and governments have failed to take meaningful steps to prevent tailings disasters. There must be significant steps taken to reign in dangerous practices, allow communities to make decisions in their best interests and hold companies accountable for their actions. If a mine can not safely and responsibly dispose of waste forever, it should not be built. 

To learn more about the important work REMA is doing to end impunity for mining companies in Mexico, follow @REMAMX on facebook and twitter or visit their blog.

 

Banner photo credit: SEMARNAT