MEXICO: No Solution in Sight for Apaxco Pollution Conflict

  • by Emilio Godoy (mexico city)
  • Inter Press Service

Although the National Water Commission (Conagua) exonerated the Ecoltec company, a subsidiary of the Swiss cement maker Holcim, of polluting nearby water sources, a group of residents has maintained a blockade of the plant since May 2009 in Apaxco, some 85 kilometres northeast of Mexico City.

In a Sep. 27 resolution, Conagua stated that the Macuspana plant, in operation since 2003, does not discharge liquid waste into underground water supplies or into the nearby Salado River.

But the decision by the water authority 'is irrelevant if the social conflict isn't resolved. This situation is a vicious circle,' Sergio Herrera, head of inspection of pollution sources in PROFEPA, Mexico's federal agency for environmental protection, told IPS.

In March 2009, 11 rural workers drowned while they were cleaning a sewage treatment plant in the area. And on May 5, the Ecoltec plant had a leak of ethyl acrylate, a by-product of the chemistry and paint industry that is considered toxic to the human nervous system.

Shortly after the two incidents, local residents founded the Apaxco-Atotonilco Pro Health Movement, which is blocking the entrance to the plant.

But almost 18 months later, Conagua determined 'the inexistence of hydraulic infrastructure for the discharge of wastewater to recipient bodies of national property, including the subsoil, such that it is not technically or materially feasible to dump or discharge wastewater into national assets.'

Nevertheless, Arturo de León, a member of the medical faculty at the Autonomous National University of Mexico and a researcher with the non-governmental Centre for Diagnosis and Alternatives for Those Affected by Toxic Substances (CEDAAT), assured IPS that 'The Salado River is polluted.'

CEDAAT has conducted clinical research into the most frequent causes of death and illness in the area since 1980. The results will be released in November.

Ecoltec, founded in 1993, processes materials like batteries, tyres and industrial waste to generate fuel that cement factories in the area utilise to run their furnaces.

Apaxco is located in an industrial belt where 115 factories operate, including a refinery of the state-run oil giant Pemex and several cement factories, one of which belongs to Holcim.

'We are going to comply with the provisions and continue to negotiate with the local residents,' Ecoltec spokesperson Gustavo Gastelum told IPS.

The company and representatives from Pro Health met Oct. 12, and another meeting is planned to seek an end to the blockade of the factory.

The two sides are trying to reach an agreement for an independent study that would determine the environmental situation at the plant. 'They are asking us what we are going to change in Ecoltec operations, and they want us to request a definitive resolution of the citizen complaint from the environmental authorities,' said Gastelum.

Inside the industrial complex are approximately 3,000 tonnes of waste that need to be removed, but the protesters are preventing any movement of the material.

The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, in force since 2004, considers the incineration of waste in cement factory furnaces as one of the biggest sources of 'POPs' like dioxins and furans.

In September 2009 and again in May 2010, Pro Health presented complaints to PROFEPA, but the administrative proceedings are at a standstill because the blockade is preventing removal of the waste material, which is also the same material on which the factory runs.

'It doesn't make sense to have the waste in storage; it is an imminent danger,' said PROFEPA inspector and expert Herrera.

PROFEPA has 80 open cases involving allegedly polluting industries across Mexico, but has yet to order any to shut down.

In Herrera's opinion, reforms of the laws guiding environmental protection, pollution prevention, and integrated waste management would improve and facilitate inspections in cases like this.

PROFEPA is in charge of monitoring and inspecting 6,784 companies, of which 3,615 are industrial. Since 1997 it has issued 4,356 certifications, with 2,248 still in force. Of these, 1,648 involve 'Clean Industry' seals.

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service