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When The River Turned Yellow

Sixty miles south of the Arizona border, the devastation from a toxic spill has led to an epochal battle between a transnational mining conglomerate and an alliance of miners and farmers.

The entrance to the huge Cananea copper mine near the U.S. border.,Photo by David Bacon
In the afternoon of August 6, 2014, the water in the Bacanuchi River turned yellow. At Tahuichopa, where the Bacanuchi flows into the larger Sonora River, Martha Agupira was one of the first to see it.
"We had no warning," she remembers. "We just saw the river change color-yellow, with a really terrible smell, like copper or chemicals. All the fish died. A bull drinking in the river died right away. Other animals died, too."
Tahuichopa is a small Mexican town of about 200 people, situated where the foothills of La Elenita mountain begin to flatten out into the high plain of the Sonora Desert, about 60 miles south of the Arizona border. The town's cornfields line the banks of both rivers. "So people had to go through the river to get to them. The people were contaminated too," she says. 
From Tahuichopa, the Sonora River flows southwest through wide green valleys separated by narrow canyons. The yellow water arrived next at Banamichi, then Baviacora, and then Ures. 
Two days after Martha Agupira saw the fish die, Luz Apodaca was visiting San Felipe de Jesus, the next town downstream.  Like many valley residents, she liked going along the riverbank to collect watercress. "I went into the water," she laments. "That day, the river was dark brown, like chocolate. But I didn't pay much attention because we're used to going in and bathing there."
Martha Agupira, activist and community leader in Tahuichopa
Photo by David Bacon
In fact, the river is a big tourist attraction, or it was. Families on weekends would drive up from Hermosillo, Sonora's capital city of 700,000, which lies farther, between two big reservoirs. Visitors would fill the restaurants in the river towns, or picnic on the sandbars. 
But the river began to smell like ammonia, Apodaca says, and by evening her face began to swell. "Over the next two days, my skin began to break out, and ever since I've had sores on my face and arms and legs. My fingernails all fell off. For many days I couldn't sleep because of the pain in my face, and my knees and bones and nerves all hurt."
What the two women experienced, along with the other 20,000 inhabitants of the Sonora and Bacanuchi River valleys, was one of the worst toxic spills in the history of mining in Mexico. In her report on the incident, Dr. Reina Castro, a professor at the University of Sonora, said, "A failure in the exit pipe from a holding pond at the mine led to the spill of approximately 40,000 cubic meters of leached material, including acidified copper sulfate." On August 9, the Mexican agency overseeing water quality, CONAGUA, found elevated levels of heavy metals in the water, including aluminum, arsenic, cadmium, copper, chromium, iron, manganese, nickel, and mercury.
The contamination did more than harm the health of river residents. It undermined the economic survival of their communities, and damaged the ecology of the valleys in ways that could be permanent. 
But the spill also created a political movement of townspeople in response, in alliance with miners involved in one of the longest strikes in Mexico's history. That alliance is bringing to light the impact that corporate giants on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border have on the people of this binational region.
Antonio Navarette Vasco, an officer of the miners union in Cananea, spent months organizing the communities affected by the toxic spill, helping to form the Frente Rio Sonora.
Photo by David Bacon
The headwaters of both rivers rise in La Elenita, where the Cananea copper mine, one of the world's largest, has been slowly pulverizing the mountain for more than a century. By the time of the spill, the mine's workers had been on strike for nearly seven years, since July 2007. Since 2010, the mine has been operated by strikebreakers hired by the mine's owner, Grupo Mexico, a global mining corporation. Some workers are hired directly by the subsidiary that runs Cananea's mine operations, Buenavista del Cobre. Others work for contractors. 
By the time of the spill, the mine's workers had been on strike for nearly seven years, since July 2007.
In a press statement issued September 1, 2014, three weeks after the spill, Grupo Mexico blamed a contractor for causing it. "We recognize that, among other factors, a relevant cause was a construction defect in the seal of a pipe in the Tinajas 1 system ... [which had been] contracted to a specialized company in the region, TECOVIFESA." Grupo Mexico announced it was sending workers to clean up the river, and later agreed with the Mexican government to set up a fund, or fidecomiso, to compensate residents for damage from the spill.
Hiring contractors to replace the mine's skilled workforce, however, has been going on for many years, according to the miners' union, Section 65 of the National Union of Mine, Metal, Steel and Allied Workers. The Cananea mine contains 13 ponds holding millions of gallons of liquid left over from leaching metal from the rock. The work of maintaining them was originally performed by members of the union, before the company contracted it out. The use of contractors is one of the principle reasons for the strike. 
Grupo Mexico today owns mines in Mexico, Peru, and the United States. In the first quarter of 2016, the corporation earned profits of $406 million, on revenue of $1.9 billion. Even with the recent decline in China's vast appetite for metal and raw materials, the company is still one of the most profitable in mining. 
Sergio Tolano, general secretary of Section 65 of the miners union in Cananea.
Photo by David Bacon
The company was originally the Mexican division of ASARCO, the American Smelting and Refining Company, started by the Guggenheim family in 1899. Until 1965, ASARCO owned many mines in Mexico. Under nationalist development policies, however, ASARCO sold its Mexican subsidiary to Mexican investors, among them Jorge Larrea Ortega, Mexico's "King of Copper." Today, his son German Larrea Mota controls Grupo Mexico.
The Cananea mine, Mexico's largest, originally belonged to a U.S. owner, Colonel William C. Greene. In 1906, miners rebelled against the "Mexican Wage"-an arrangement paying white miners from the United States. higher wages than Mexicans. In the violent insurrection that followed, the Arizona Rangers crossed the border into Mexico and put down the strike. The battle is considered the first conflict of the Mexican Revolution.
Cananea afterward belonged to the Anaconda Copper Company until the Mexican government took it over in 1971. During the last years it owned the mine, Anaconda ended the old method of shaft mining, and began open-pit operations. That decision had an enormous impact on the area's ecology. 
In an open-pit mine, huge chunks of rock are blown out of the mountain, loaded onto giant trucks, and taken to a crusher. There, the ore is ground down into fine particles, and laid out on huge "benches." The crushed rock is then sprayed with acid that leaches out the metal, which is collected below in ponds. Big electrodes pull the metal from the solution, and the leftover liquid is channeled into those 13 ponds. The 2014 spill originated in one of them. 
Today, benches of tailings tower over miners' homes in Cananea. Part of the old town now lies buried beneath them. On a hot windy day, dust from pulverized rock blows into doorways, and miners' families breathe the minerals the wind carries. On Cananea's outskirts, the giant ponds line the southbound highway, parallel to the Sonora River.
One of the retaining ponds at the mine in Cananea
Photo by Garrett Brown
In the late 1980s, the administration of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari first declared the Cananea mine bankrupt, and then sold it to the Larrea family's Grupo Mexico for $475 million in 1990. That's the equivalent of the last three months of Grupo Mexico's current profits.
Salinas also sold the neighboring Nacozari mine, almost as big as Cananea, to the Larreas in 1988. In 1997, Grupo Mexico partnered with Pennsylvania-based Union Pacific to buy Mexico's main north-south railroad for $527 million, and ended all passenger service. Two years later, Grupo Mexico bought ASARCO itself, its former parent, for $1.18 billion, gaining ownership of mines and smelters in the United States. 
Today, the corporation's board of directors has interlocking ties with many Mexican banks and media companies, and with U.S. corporations as well. Director Claudio X. González Laporte, for instance, is board chair of Kimberley Clark de Mexico, the Mexican subsidiary of the U.S. paper giant. González Laporte is a past director of General Electric, Kellogg, Home Depot, and the Mexican media giant Televisa, and was special adviser to the Mexican president.
The miners were fighting a rearguard battle to keep the wages and conditions they'd won over decades.
By the late 1990s, Grupo Mexico had a history of labor conflicts, as it reduced payroll to increase profits. In 1997, railroad workers mounted strikes over plans to reduce their workforce of 13,000 by more than half. They lost. In 1998, Cananea miners struck over company demands to trim its directly employed labor force by 1,000 jobs, while hiring non-union workers at lower wages through contractors. Threatened with military occupation of the mine, miners ended their strike, but more than 800 were not rehired.
The miners were fighting a rearguard battle to keep the wages and conditions they'd won over decades. In the 1950s and 1960s, Mexican miners had better protective laws than miners in the United States, controlling exposure to the silica dust produced by crushing ore. They made good wages and lived in homes built with government loans.
The Sonora River, above Tahuichopa
Photo by David Bacon
After the miners lost the 1998 strike, however, Grupo Mexico disconnected exhaust ventilation pipes on the roof of its main ore concentrator building. Dust in work areas reached knee-high levels. Grupo Mexico also closed the Hospital Ronquillo, which had provided health care to miners' families. For 80 years, the mine had been responsible for providing water service to the town. After the strike, Grupo Mexico said the town had to fend for itself. 
When Grupo Mexico announced it was terminating 135 workers who maintained the tailings ponds, miner Rene Enriquez Leon warned that a spill could reach the headwaters of the Sonora River and the farming region downstream. "It would be an ecological disaster," he predicted. 
In 2006, an explosion in Grupo Mexico's Pasta de Conchos coal mine in Nueva Rosita, Coahuila, trapped 65 miners underground. After six days, the company and government authorities called off rescue attempts. The head of the union, Napoleon Gomez Urrutia, accused those responsible of "industrial homicide." In response, the government charged him with fraud.
Gomez fled Mexico and was given sanctuary in Canada, where he's lived with the assistance of the United Steelworkers (the union for U.S. copper miners). After years of appeals, Mexican courts threw out the charges against him. Nevertheless, Gomez continues to stay in Canada, since the government won't guarantee his safety and freedom if he returns.
Antonio Navarette, who began working in Cananea in 1985, says that by the mid-2000s the lack of safety was producing "a psychosis of fear. Once you went in, you didn't know if you'd come back out again." The machinery wasn't given preventative maintenance, he charges, including collectors for evacuating dust. Accidents grew more frequent; workers lost hands and fingers. The accelerating problems, he believes, "made it clear that the company was pushing us to go on strike. But we decided things couldn't continue, because otherwise we were going to die there."
Domingo Molina Ruiz, a rancher in Tahuichopa
Photo by David Bacon
For the first three years of the strike, Mexican labor law kept the company from legally operating the facility. Then the government declared the strike illegal, and in 2010, federal soldiers and police occupied the town and reopened the Cananea mine. Despite that, Seccion 65 continues to organize strike activity. The union also continued to monitor safety issues. In 2009, the miners' strike committee warned Eduardo Bours, governor of Sonora, that "a spill that could have very serious consequences, since on April 14 the company withdrew its emergency personnel and with them the union workforce responsible for maintaining the tailings dam, which could put the population below the dam in danger." The committee got no answer.
"The townspeople, even the children, were all crying. No one knew what could be done. Even Gila monster lizards and coyotes were fleeing from the danger."
Five years later, the predicted spill finally occurred. At one in the morning, Navarette, a leader of the striking union, saw an appeal for help on Facebook from a doctor in Bacanuchi, the first town on the Bacanuchi River below the mine. "We went there right away," he remembers. "The townspeople, even the children, were all crying. No one knew what could be done. Even Gila monster lizards and coyotes were fleeing from the danger."
The strikers became the primary source of information for the affected towns, he says. "We always worried conditions in the mine could affect the communities. We began to help them organize, because we needed to join forces to get the company to listen." That was the beginning of the Frente Rio Sonora-the Sonora River Front. 
Today, the Front is headed by Marco Antonio Garcia, a farmer and former union miner from Baviacora. Garcia, whose deeply lined face shows the impact of a life working in the high desert, farms 75 acres-more than most local farmers, who cultivate just a few. When the farmers had to throw away their crops because of the contamination, he lost $33,000. 
It wasn't just personal loss that pushed him into action. "If we don't win, we're lost," he says, "and the most important thing people on the Rio Sonora will lose is their dignity.
Antonio Garcia Martinez, the president of the Frente Rio Sonora, is a rancher near Baviacora
Photo by David Bacon
"The Frente was organized at the urging of Seccion 65 in Cananea," he continues. "They began visiting all the towns along the river. They had their problem with the scrapping of their union contract, and we had our problem with the river. At first, some people said the miners spent all their time fighting. But in reality, they're involved in a big struggle. And so are we, if we want to have a future for the people of the Rio Sonora. The contamination of the river is going to last a lifetime."
Protests first broke out in Ures, a month after the spill. "We started marching and blocking the highway," recalls Lupita Poom, who now heads the Frente there. "These were all peaceful demonstrations, and hundreds of people took part. That's when we began to meet the leaders from other towns on the river." And as Navarette and other miners from Seccion 65 helped local groups get started, a bigger plan took shape. "We decided to do another planton [an organized encampment, like Occupy Wall Street], but this one directed at the mine," Poom says. 
Martha Agupira says that when the miners came to Tahuichopa to invite people to the protest, "the municipal president told us that soldiers would come, and we'd be thrown in jail. But by then we had nothing, so why not go?"
On March 18 of last year, buses and cars caravanned up the river. Bypassing federal and state police guarding the mine gates, the buses instead unloaded hundreds of farmers and striking miners at the plant outside of town that pumps water to the mine. For several months, their planton cut the supply of fresh water to the mine, leading to a substantial reduction in its operation.
"We stayed there for a long time," Poom recalls. Her husband remained in Ures to take care of their children, while she and other women formed the backbone of the occupation. Poom even got a big tattoo on her back with the symbol of the striking union surrounded by a banner with the Frente's name.
Lupita Poom, leader of the Frente Rio Sonora in Ures, and an activist who stayed at the planton in Cananea for months
Photo by David Bacon
"The miners brought us three meals a day and materials for making our tents, so that we could have some shelter," she says. "We weren't afraid. To me, fear means sitting with my arms folded doing nothing. At the planton, we were raising our voices, making people listen to us."
76 percent of those surveyed had skin problems and 78 percent had problems with their eyes. Many had headaches and joint pains, or said their hair was falling out. 
When a group of U.S. health professionals and environmental and labor activists visited the river towns in April 2016, they found that the impact of the spill was still present. The group said they handed out a thousand health surveys, and got 500 replies. Cadelba Lomeli-Loibl, a nurse from Oakland, California, said at a press conference in Hermosillo that "we found children between four and ten years old who have painful rashes that haven't healed in over a year, and older people with liver and kidney problems."
According to Lomeli-Loibl and her coworkers, Olivia deBree and Garrett Brown, 76 percent of those surveyed had skin problems and 78 percent had problems with their eyes. Many had headaches and joint pains, or said their hair was falling out. The group pointed to the need for a complete epidemiological study of the people of the river towns. Many residents they interviewed said that various people from the government and local universities had taken blood and water samples since the spill, but had not reported the results to them.
One interviewee in Baviacora told deBree that her 13-year-old grandson had gone into the water after the spill, when it was still yellow. Later, he developed a lesion on his face that began to be eaten up from the inside. Tests in Mexico City found lead and cadmium in his blood. He now has chronic sinusitis and a tumor in his face. "At that point in the interview, she just started crying," deBree says.
Interviewed at the Cananea planton last year, Reyna Valenzuela of Ures explained, "Our kids had problems because, in the first place, we were all drinking the water, and then because we used it to bathe. Our water comes from the well and the wells are contaminated. As the doctors said, whether you drink or bathe in it, you're exposed from your head to your feet." Her 11-year-old son still has rashes on his legs, ears, neck, trunk, hands, feet, between his buttocks, and on his penis. "Doctors said it was because they were exposed to heavy metals."
Jesus Maria Cordoba Piri, a rancher near Baviacora, shows the rashes on his leg that won't go away
Photo by David Bacon
The river towns get their drinking water from wells, which were almost all close to the river. They too were contaminated. At first, trucks brought in bottled water, while new wells were drilled farther away.
In negotiations after the spill, Grupo Mexico agreed to provide funding for a clinic in Ures. Some residents reported getting treatment there, but others said they did not trust it. 
In Baviacora, Jesus Cordoba, a local farmer, recalled, "After the spill they brought water in big barrels at first. But now we have to buy it. A container of 20 liters (5 gallons) costs 13 pesos. We use six of them in a week, just my wife and myself. I don't believe the river will ever go back to what it was before. They say contamination goes down 5 meters [15 feet]. How will they clean up five meters down, on all that land?  "In negotiations after the spill, Grupo Mexico agreed to provide funding for a clinic in Ures. Some residents reported getting treatment there, but others said they did not trust it. 
Brooke Anderson, a climate justice advocate from Oakland who accompanied the nurses, says residents told her they'd lost half their annual income because they were not able to plant or irrigate their crops, or because of the loss of tourist income in the towns.
"The people who came here before to buy the garlic don't come now, because they believe it's contaminated," Martha Agupira explains. "When we brought our beans to Hermosillo, no one wanted to buy them either. Families now go hungry because they have no income."
Problems multiplied in the month after the spill, when Hurricane Odile hit western Mexico. "When the river rose, it flooded the cornfields," Agupira recalls. "That brought the contamination into a much larger area on both sides of the river. The rains didn't clean the river, the way Grupo Mexico claimed. It spread the contamination. If you dig down into the earth, you find the yellow stain from the chemicals. The fields are drying up, and are full of this yellow dirt."
Domingo Molina Ruiz with water from the well he gives to his animals, but won't drink himself because he fears it's contaminated
Photo by David Bacon
As she sat in Tahuichopa's health clinic-a room in the small community center, bare except for a table and a small cabinet with a few bottles of pills-she twisted the hair that frames her oval face and falls below her shoulders. "I used to have lots of hair," she said sadly. "Now it's falling out."
Economic problems are leading to an exodus from the river towns. "People have left to try to find work elsewhere, so the majority of the people here now are seniors," Agupira says. "My father stays here because he loves the land. But we're struggling to make it."
While some people from the river towns used to get jobs in the Cananea mine, both strikers and river residents now say that the company no longer hires local people because it believes they would be sympathetic to the strikers. Meanwhile, some strikers have gone to the United States to earn money to send home to their families. One striker, who asked to keep his name confidential when he was interviewed at the planton, said, "I'm blacklisted here, and on the other side, I'm just another illegal. It's hard to keep your humanity, but I'm surviving, and there's no other way."
Cananea's impact crosses the border in other ways too. The San Pedro River flows from Sonora into Arizona, where it meets the Gila River and eventually the Colorado. It is the last major free-flowing desert river in the United States and hosts migratory birds, jaguars, coatimundi, and other endangered species. 
The river is already stressed by pumps that supply water to Sierra Vista and Fort Huachuca, Arizona, which take 6,100 acre-feet more water annually than is replenished by rainfall. But its main problem is that its water comes from the Las Nutrias and El Sauz Rivers, which start near Cananea. 
The Sonora River, above Baviacora
Photo by David Bacon
In 1979, a mine spill flowed into the San Pedro, killing fish and animals for 60 miles, according to a report by Arizona State University. Both the Sonora and the San Pedro Rivers are threatened by the expansion of tailing ponds at the mine, according to a report by Dick Kamp and Laurie Silvan of E-Tech International, who visited the mine after the 2014 spill. E-Tech International is a nonprofit organization that provides communities with technical support on the environmental impact of large development projects. "A new tailings dam and a large catchment area are being constructed," their report said. "The existing tailings, coupled with older acidic discharges to ground and surface water, were suspected as sources of the contamination found downstream of the mine in the past."
E-Tech International and other groups have urged more systematic monitoring of the Sonora and San Pedro Rivers for contaminants, but "the contract for fidecomiso funds prohibits technical studies that address long-term monitoring," the pair reported. Nevertheless, since the spill, 27 sites have been monitored by the Sonora-based Research Center in Food and Development. But many river residents say the only person they've seen consistently collecting water samples has been Dr. Reina Castro. 
Water flow in both rivers is also affected by pumping from the mine. Grupo Mexico has 120 wells in the desert around Cananea. By contrast, the city itself only has 14. As production has increased, the mine's consumption of water has increased with it. Castro estimates that "in the decade of the 2000s, the mine consumed 23 million cubic meters of water a year, or 729 liters [almost 200 gallons] per second, from the sources of the San Pedro and Sonora Rivers." According to the Nature Conservancy, parts of the San Pedro no longer flow year-round.
"But the water belongs to the nation," declares Antonio Garcia. "We all have a right to it."
The Frente's immediate demands include a complete clean-up of the Sonora River, extensive health monitoring and treatment for river residents, and compensation from Grupo Mexico for lost crops and income. While the corporation budgeted $110 million for the clean-up fund and compensation, residents charge that much of it went to large farmers and businesses, while workers and small businesses received little or nothing.
At the beginning of May, two workers and a superviser died when their pickup was crushed by a huge dump truck in the mine. Another worker lost his life a few months earlier in an accident.
The union in Cananea wants to return its members to their jobs. But many strikers doubt the company is willing to operate the mine safely, even if they go back to work. At the beginning of May, two workers and a superviser died when their pickup was crushed by a huge dump truck in the mine. Another worker lost his life a few months earlier in an accident. One possible reason for increased accidents is that workers in the mine have been working 12-hour days since it was reopened in 2010, instead of the eight hours mandated in the old union contract.
Dr. Reina Castro, at a press conference in Hermosillo reporting the continued impact of the toxic spill.  
Photo by Olivia deBree
On June 30, the Permanent Commission of the Mexican Congress accused Grupo Mexico of lengthening the workday to 12 hours, and passed a measure demanding that the company account for its failure to remediate the damage done to the Sonora River by the toxic spill, and for the fatal May accident at the mine.
Cecilia Soto Gonzalez, a deputy representing Sonora in the Congress, from the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution, told La Jornada newspaper, "The families of the victims and the inhabitants of Cananea are deeply angry because, as always, Grupo Mexico has washed its hands [of responsibility[ and the authorities don't act impartially to determine the responsibility for the lack of safety and super-exploitation at Buenavista de Cobre [the Cananea mine[, where the workday has been increased from eight to 12 hours a day." 
Together, the Mexican miners' union and the Frente Rio Sonora have filed a complaint with Mexico's Human Rights Commission over the spill and the strike. United Steelworkers has supported them. When the Cananea strike started in 2007, the USW representative Manny Armenta brought food and money to the miners, and the union later put political pressure on the Obama administration to intercede with the Mexican government.
Both unions say they intend eventually to merge into one organization. The USW now negotiates with Grupo Mexico, since the company owns the ASARCO mines in the United States. But until now, the company has been unwilling to agree on a new contract, and threatens to close a smelter in Hayden, Arizona, which would cost 211 USW members their jobs.
Armenta and USW District 12 Director Bob LaVenture were both at the planton when it started last year. Together, the U.S. and Mexican unions filed a complaint with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, accusing Grupo Mexico and ASARCO of violating workers' rights on both sides of the border. "Companies like Grupo Mexico, and other multinational conglomerates that attempt to silence workers, are precisely the reason why international solidarity among labor unions is so important," said Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers.
Striking miners burn a banner with the photo of German Larrea, the owner of the Cananea mine, because they hold him responsible for the deaths of miners in the Pasta de Conchos coal mine and the pollution of the Rio Sonora
Photo by David Bacon
As far as Grupo Mexico is concerned, the clean-up of the Rio Sonora is over. On October 9, 2014, two months after the spill, it said it had put 1,200 people to work on it, and declared: "As a result of the work controlling the acidity and cleanup of the Sonora and Bacanuchi Rivers ... the company has completed its surface cleanup work on 98.3% of the 250.4 kilometers it treated."
And on July 8, the Mexico daily El Universal reported that the UVEAS clinic funded by the $110 million had closed. The Federal Commission for Protection Against Health Risks said that the clinic, after 1,160 medical consultations, had only identified 360 people as having had health impacts from the spill. One of them, Patricia Velarde Ortega, who suffers from complications including frequent nosebleeds, filed a complaint with Mexico's Human Rights Commission after finding that the clinic's phone had been disconnected, and that she was no longer able to get treatment.
Dr. Reina Castro called Grupo Mexico's declaration irresponsible. "The spill of heavy metals into the Sonora River caused by Buenavista del Cobre is a problem that has not been resolved," her report concluded. "We should not accept this position. ... It's necessary to apply existing environmental and labor laws with all their strength." 
[David Bacon is a California writer and documentary photographer. A former union organizer, today he documents labor, the global economy, war and migration, and the struggle for human rights. His latest book, The Right to Stay Home (Beacon Press, 2013). discusses alternatives to forced migration and the criminalization of migrants.]
This article will appear in the upcoming Fall 2016 issue of The American Prospect. Subscribe here