[Marxism] ‘A Slow-Motion Chernobyl’: How Lax Laws Turned a River Into a Disaster
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Tue Dec 31 09:21:44 MST 2019
NY Times, Dec. 31, 2019
‘A Slow-Motion Chernobyl’: How Lax Laws Turned a River Into a Disaster
By Steve Fisher and Elisabeth Malkin
EL SALTO, Mexico — By the time the polluted Santiago River bursts over a
waterfall on the outskirts of Guadalajara, in western Mexico, its stench
seems to be everywhere: hovering over crops, seeping into homes, fouling
the tap water.
The river smells of industrial waste and sewage — a catastrophe years in
the making, with far-ranging consequences. Activists say the chemicals
streaming from factories have contributed to a toxic brew that has
killed and sickened many along its banks. The environment minister
recently called it an “environmental hell.”
“This town is a slow-motion Chernobyl,” said Enrique Enciso, whose house
in El Salto is perched just a few blocks from the river, and whose
family has fought for more than a decade to clean it up.
The river is a powerful example of Mexico’s failure to protect its
environment: A New York Times analysis of 15 years of efforts to clean
up the Santiago found that attempts floundered in the face of legal
loopholes, deficient funding and a lack of political will.
Now, Mexico has signed an expansive trade deal with the United States
and Canada in which it made an explicit promise to conserve its
environment — a provision that was central to winning approval from
Democrats in the United States Congress.
But The Times’s interviews with federal, state and local authorities and
with families along the river showed that, without an overhaul of
Mexico’s flawed legal framework and a change in the political conditions
that allowed the Santiago to become little more than a channel for
industrial runoff, Mexico is unlikely to be able to meet the terms of
the trade deal.
The Santiago River, which courses through the state of Jalisco, is a
case study in the ways the government has proved unable to police the
businesses in a major river basin.
The United Nations called it Mexico’s most polluted waterway. Farms and
factories that help power Mexico’s economy — and that would be bound up
in the terms of the new trade deal — dump illegal quantities of waste
into it, and do so with little penalty.
Factories are required to report and treat their own emissions, for
instance — an exercise in good faith that officials admit does not work.
Less than a third of the country’s industrial wastewater is treated, the
director of the government agency in charge of Mexico’s rivers, the
National Water Commission, or Conagua, said recently at a public event,
citing 2017 figures.
There are companies that do treat their wastewater, the director, Blanca
Jiménez said. “But there are companies that don’t, even when they have
the economic means. And there the state has to intervene.”
But the state rarely acts.
Conagua is responsible for regulating industrial emissions into rivers,
but it has just one inspector for the entire state of Jalisco. And even
when the agency does respond, the penalties it can impose are too low to
be a deterrent.
In one example, according to documents obtained by The Times, the
Texas-based Celanese Corporation acknowledged to Conagua that it had
discharged illegal amounts of chemical waste 13 times during the summer
of 2015, including almost 500 kilograms of hydrochloric acid, a
corrosive compound. The company blamed heavy rains for the overflow, but
Conagua issued a $4,300 fine.
The federal environmental enforcement agency also has the authority to
inspect industrial wastewater — but rarely does so. In the state of
Jalisco, inspectors visited 73 companies in the five years leading up to
2018 to check water emissions. There are an estimated 10,000 companies —
from family-owned workshops to state-owned energy companies and large
multinationals — operating in the Santiago River basin in Jalisco.
Mexican officials have known the Santiago is heavily polluted for many
years. In 2008, an 8-year-old boy, Miguel Ángel López Rocha, fell into a
tributary of the Santiago. He scrambled out, but by dinnertime he was
convulsing and vomiting. He died days later, of arsenic poisoning caused
by the river, according to the National Human Rights Commission.
His death turned national attention to the river’s pollution, and the
state commissioned a study. That 2011 report, by the Mexican Institute
for Water Technology, found that the river contained high levels of
arsenic, lead, cadmium, cyanide, mercury and nickel.
Two years later, a commission set up under the first North American
trade agreement studied pollution in the Santiago and the adjoining Lake
Chapala at the request of local communities. It found monitoring and
enforcement failures as well as little evidence of an “alleged
implementation of an ecological restoration plan” for the region.
But that trade deal, known as Nafta, did not allow for any penalties.
In 2017, the state of Jalisco, together with the National Autonomous
University of Mexico, studied the river again and found its condition to
be “critical,” with levels of many pollutants that repeatedly violated
the permitted limits.
“The Santiago River is, for me, one of the most shameful, most terrible
stories that Jalisco and Mexico have,” said the state governor, Enrique
Just after taking office a year ago, Mr. Alfaro visited the bridge over
the waterfall that has become the symbol of the river’s pollution, and
promised to tackle the problem — a bold pledge, given that both his
power and his resources are limited.
Mexico’s regulations are antiquated and riddled with loopholes.
Mexico overhauled its environmental regulations and set up new national
agencies after the original 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement
brought international attention to its lax standards.
But that impulse quickly dissipated as Mexico worked to attract
investment, and a quarter-century later, Mexican regulations generally
allow factories to dump more contaminants into the water and the air
than is allowed in the United States.
There is no limit to the number of factories allowed to discharge waste
into a river. Regulations do not include some organic chemicals, such as
pesticides, and many heavy metals, according to Elizabeth Southerland, a
former water expert at the Environmental Protection Agency who reviewed
the Mexican regulations.
The limited rules, she added, are “totally inadequate to protect aquatic
life and human health.”
The agencies in charge of enforcing the law have few resources and
little political support, making them no match for the country’s
expanding industry and growing population. A proposed overhaul of
wastewater limits has stalled, blocked by lobbying from industry,
according to Luis Esparza, an environmental lawyer, and Conagua officials.
“The law is made to normalize polluting activities to give them the seal
of approval legally,” said Cindy McCulligh, an environmental expert at
the Autonomous University of Zacatecas who studies the causes of the
Santiago’s pollution. “Then you have the total absence of inspections,
so that generates an environment of even greater impunity.”
When Mr. Alfaro, the governor, asked federal officials for help, he was
told there was not a single peso available. The federal budget for the
environment has fallen by more than half of what it was five years ago.
With no help from the federal government, Mr. Alfaro signed an agreement
with local factories in August in which the companies made a voluntary
pledge to play by the rules.
The government “does not have the capacity to ensure that we all follow
the law,” said Rubén Masayi González, the coordinator of the Council of
Jalisco Industry Chambers at the time.
Municipal authorities, in theory, also have the power to check
polluters: They have control over zoning and emissions into the
municipal sewage system. But in practice, with threadbare budgets and
little technical expertise, they are the weakest link in enforcing
That is what Carlos Maldonado, a former wheat farmer, found out when he
ran for mayor of Poncitlán, a largely rural municipality upstream from
where the river loops around Guadalajara.
Over decades, he had seen mounds of foam form in the irrigation channels
carrying river water to his crops. Then the fish disappeared from the
river and the land became barren.
During his first days in office, in 2010, he decided to audit local
“When people voted for me they did not vote for someone who was going to
turn a blind eye,” Mr. Maldonado said.
He asked a chemical plant owned by Celanese, a major employer in
Poncitlán, for a report of its emissions. It had operated the plant in
Jalisco since the 1940s, but shut it down at the end of October, citing
Celanese told Mr. Maldonado that the request was beyond his authority,
he said. So he withheld the company’s yearly operating license as leverage.
When the mayor would not back down, Celanese contacted the state
governor. And after a meeting among state and local officials with
lawyers for Celanese, Mr. Maldonado relented.
W. Travis Jacobsen, a spokesman for Celanese, said that the mayor had no
reason to withhold any licenses or permits because the company was never
cited for any wrongdoing.
The former Conagua director for the Santiago River Basin, José Chedid
Abraham, said laws on pollution enforcement were flawed.
“Everybody enforces the part that corresponds to them,” he said. “And
that leaves gaps where polluters can maneuver so that they can continue
That could change under the new trade deal, said Gustavo Alanís, the
director of the Mexican Center for Environmental Law, one of Mexico’s
leading environmental organizations.
Tucked into the fine print of the law that the United States Congress
wrote to approve the deal is a measure that would require Mexico to
correct failures in enforcement or face possible penalties.
“This could be an important signal,” Mr. Alanís said, adding that the
measure put “baby teeth” in the agreement. “We have always wanted there
to be enforcement.”
But after years of activism, the communities living along the river have
little hope of change.
The Enciso family have been pressing for government action more than a
decade. In that time, they have seen neighbors suffering from kidney
disease, respiratory illnesses, and skin rashes. Others developed
cancer, said the family, and many believed the river was to blame.
“Now we realize the size of the monster,” said Mr. Enciso’s wife,
Graciela González, 58.
Mr. Enciso added: “The government is walking hand in hand with the guilty.”
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