Three rivers rise at the site of the Buena Vista Copper Mine in Cananea, Sonora Mexico. The San Pedro flows north and crosses into Arizona near Palominas before joining the Gila River to the north. The Rio Bacanuchi and the Rio Sonora rise to the south of the mine site, the Bacanuchi somewhat to the west, the Sonora more to the east. The rivers join just north of the town of Arizpe.
For well over a thousand years, the Rio Sonora gave life to the people of the valley. The early inhabitants, the Opata, irrigated corn and vegetables. In Banamichi there is a large boulder carved with petroglyphs believed to be a map of the ancient irrigation canals. Some of the irrigation canals in use today follow the same ancient paths. Over the years, the Opata faced raids from the Apache and other hostile tribes but persevered because the river sustained them.
The Bacanuchi and the Sonora are the life blood of the region. Almost all the drinking water for the towns along the river and water for irrigation and domestic animals comes from the river. The rivers have all been abused for many years. There is no treatment for drinking water and no waste treatment for municipal sewage. The towns have relied on the natural filtration of the sandy soils along the river bed to clean the water in the municipal wells.
In 1979, a process pond on the north side of the mine failed and sent acid and copper sulfate into the Rio San Pedro. The spill contaminated the river through the towns of Palominas and St.David, Arizona. The river flowed red and yellow for miles.
As a result the Mexican government, the owners of the mine at that time, responded to US pressure to prevent further spills, not by preventative and better mining practices but by building a canal to take any future spills around to the south and into the Rio Sonora drainage.
In 1982, another major spill contaminated the Rio Sonora. The Mexican government was still the owner and they did little to mitigate the spill.
The latest spill occurred on August 6, 2014 when 40 million cubic meters of sulfuric acid and copper sulfate from yet another failed process pond. The spill the Rio Bacanuchi and flowed south to the confluence with the Rio Sonora. The spill was not reported for 23 hours by the current owners, Groupo Mexico. Again, the river flowed red. This time, the government closed the municipal and agricultural wells all along the river. The government began delivering water in 5 gallon jugs. Large water tanks were placed on the streets and filled from tank trucks filled with water from wells deemed far enough from the river to be safe. People without their own cisterns or water tanks and pumps lived out of 5 gallon buckets. It was not until November and December that the towns were permitted to use the wells again.
Sales of corn, beans, peanuts, cheese and other agricultural products suffered as no one wanted to buy them for fear they were contaminated with toxic heavy metals. This sector of the economy is still suffering in late 2015.
Groupo Mexico established a trust of about 1.6 million USD to pay for lost crops, lost work, lost revenue, medical expenses and the clean up of the river. They paid fines of less than $2 million US while their US subsidiary, Asarco, paid fines for $16 billion for infractions and pollution in the US.
Life is somewhat back to normal along the rivers. Kids are in school, cows graze but problems persist. The major problem is uncertainty. The Trust has posted test results from the water but they the residents have no confidence in their accuracy. There are no posted test results from sediment testing. Groupo Mexico claims they cleaned the river bed but the efficacy of their processes is in question. Government officials promised water treatment plants to remove heavy metals and fecal bacteria from municipal water supplies. They promised sewage treatment plants. None of this has happened.
The role of the Rio Sonora Foundation
The Foundation will solicit tax exempt donations to provide monetary support to local Sonoran non-governmental groups to lobby and influence the legislative and regulatory process to gain the compliance of the Buena Vista Copper mine to Mexican mining laws, international standards and industry best practices. This includes secondary containment of all process and waste ponds and test wells down stream from holding and waste ponds.
We will engage outside experts to perform ongoing testing of the water and sediments along the Bacanuchi and Sonora rivers and publish the results.
We will engage outside experts to vet any remediation plans by the mine or the government
We will provide monetary support ongoing blood testing, investigation of dermatological issues and other health issues related to water quality.
We will provide scholarship money to local students who wish to pursue environmental studies in order to increase awareness of environmental issue and build a core of local experts who can analyze and solve issues with the river.
Our hope is that the Foundation will help heal the communities by presenting factual information, trusted test results and recommendations for the future.