The Sonora river shortly after the acid leak. Photo by our Observer. 

Three weeks after a massive acid spill turned Mexico’s Sonora and Bacanuchi rivers bright orange, tens of thousands of people who live alongside them are suffering from dire water shortages. A cattle rancher tells us this is destroying locals’ livelihoods.

On August 6, more than 10 million gallons of sulfuric acid leaked from a copper mine into the Sonora River. The company that owns the mine, Grupo Mexico, was slow to report the spill, contacting the authorities just under the 24-hour legal deadline. Civil defence officials blamed lax supervision, and said the mine’s operators should have been able to detect the problem long before such a huge amount of acid had leaked.

As a result, about 20,000 people’s water supply has been cut off, and 80 schools are closed. Locals have been ordered to avoid the river: if sulfuric acid touches their skin or eyes, it can cause severe burns, while inhaling its vapor can result in sore mouths and trouble breathing. The leak also contained arsenic, which is known to cause cancer.

The town of Arizpe, on the Sonora River. Photo by our Observer.

“We barely have enough water for drinking purposes; farmers’ crops are dying”

Adalberto Elias is a cattle rancher who lives in Hermosillo, in Sonora state.

I live right by the dam where the Sonora river ends. But I have relatives who live up in Cananea, where the mine is located. On August 6, my relatives there called me to tell me that they noticed the river had turned orange. I went up there to inspect it; it smelled strongly of sulfur. We took some photos to post them on Facebook and send them to the media, before anybody knew what was going on.

Three days later, the orange colour reached Arizpe, the first big town along the river, which is also my hometown and where I own a ranch. There, and all along the river, the authorities had to close the wells where people got their water. They’re still shut today. This is a real catastrophe for people who live along the river.  While the authorities bring people bottled water via tankers, this is barely enough for drinking purposes. They don’t have enough water for bathing properly or cleaning their homes. But the biggest threat is to people’s livelihoods. Most people here are small farmers, who cultivate garlic, potatoes, peanuts, pecans, beans, corn, lettuce… They no longer have enough water to keep their crops alive.

A water distribution centre. Photo published on Facebook by Luis Aganza.

The authorities are testing the well water every few days, and have told us we need to wait at least two more weeks. Most farmers I talk to, though, tell me it will be too late to save their crops.

Inside a water distribution centre. Photo published on Facebook by Luis Aganza.
“Farmers are reporting that their cows are starting to have a lot of still births”

People are also very worried about their cattle. Since I have a big ranch – 4,000 hectares – I built a well a few years ago far away from the river, so I have enough clean water for my cattle at the moment. But most cattle drink directly from the river. Some ranchers I’ve talked to tell me that their cows are starting to have lots of still births, and are afraid they’ll die if they keep drinking the polluted water. Of course, people fear eating any local livestock anymore.

Livestock drinking from the polluted Sonora river. Photo by our Observer. 

Families are also struggling with schools being shut down. It was simply too difficult to keep them open without running water. My little nephews have been out of school for weeks, and they’re bored – it’s very hard to keep them away from the river, which is where kids here are used to playing.

Everybody here is fed up with this situation. I think the authorities are doing their best. It’s really up to the company to fix the problem they’ve created, but they aren’t taking any responsibility. Nobody trusts them, anyway – they reported the spill too late, and tried to pretend it wasn’t dangerous.

According to the country’s environment minister, the spill could be "the worst environmental disaster in the country's mining industry in modern times.” Mexico’s president, Enrique Pena Nieto, said that Grupo Mexico will face fines that have yet to be determined.