Americas Program Blog

A new world of citizen action, analysis and policy options

Win for Environmentalists as San Xavier Mine Suspends Activities

Posted by americasprogram on December 3, 2009

"Water YES, Life YES, Cyanide NO, Mine NO"

Environmentalists in Mexico and across the world celebrated on Nov. 19, after Canadian company New Gold announced that it was to suspend activities at the controversial San Xavier mine. The decision comes on the back of mounting criticism and legal threats over the company’s operations in the town of Cerro de San Pedro.

The controversy dates back to 1995, when New Gold’s Mexican subsidiary MSX arrived at the small town in central Mexico, ostensibly to carry out a project in search of minerals. After setting up shop in Cerro de San Pedro, the company began blasting the nearby mountain in search of silver and gold.

The plan entailed the use of 25 tons of explosives per day to extract 80,000 tons of raw material for processing. The project involved the creation of a crater, 0.6 miles wide and almost 1000 feet deep inside the mountain. The project also involved untold damage to the town, a heritage site and “protected area” due to its historical importance as it was settled in 1583 and is the first town of the Mexican state of San Luis Potosí.

The San Xavier mine in the town of Cerro de San Pedro

There were also health concerns over the project. The capital city of San Luis Potosí lies only 5 miles from the MSX site. Its 1.5 million residents soon began to receive a dangerous cocktail of dust, gas, ammonium nitrate, diesel and TNT, generated by the project’s explosions and carried by westerly winds to the nearby population center. MSX also revealed that 25% of the hydrogen cyanide used in the mining process evaporated, creating clouds containing hydrogen cyanide that journeyed ominously towards the city of San Luis Potosí. It was also claimed that local water supplies were contaminated as a result of pollution from the project.

In 1999, to the bewilderment of environmentalists and despite local opposition, the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) issued an environmental impact permit to MSX. The permit was cancelled in 2004 by the Federal Tribunal of Administrative Justice, which ruled that an environmental permit could not be granted for the project under any circumstances.

The permit ping-pong persisted when in April 2006 SEMARNAT ignored the Tribunal ruling and issued a new permit based on a new environmental impact assessment. In September of this year, the court again cancelled MSX’s permit. In its ruling it chastised SEMARNAT for its role in the debacle, and lambasted MSX for continuing to operate illegally. This weekend’s celebrations were triggered when SEMARNAT officially informed MSX of the decision on Nov. 13, forcing parent company New Gold to announce suspension of activities at the MSX mine.

MSX was dealt another blow on Sunday when the Broad Opposition Front (FAO), the principal group opposing the mine, announced that it plans to register criminal charges against the San Xavier mine director, Jorge Mendizábal Acebo, for damage to the country, abuse of power, operating without a permit and other environmental crimes. It also announced the commencement of legal proceedings against New Gold and against Profepa, Mexico’s environmental law enforcement agency.

Beyond the maelstrom of legal activity, environmental activists are overjoyed at what appears to be a happy ending to a lengthy battle. Organizations such as the FAO and REMA have demonstrated the ability of grassroots movements to mobilize and defeat government organizations and powerful transnational corporations. As the local residents and environmentalists undertake an operation to restore Cerro de San Pedro to its previous historical and environmental status, fellow activists around the world should take inspiration from such a valiant victory.

Michael Collins, December 2009


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