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What does 10 million gallons of sulfuric acid look like?

CORRECTION: THIS PIECE ASSUMES THAT THE ORANGE RUNOFF IN THE PATAGONIA MOUNTAINS IS THE RESULT OF THE TOXIC SPILL IN CANANEA. IT IS NOT. THE ORANGE RIVER IS OF UNCERTAIN CONTENT BUT WAS THE RESULT OF HEAVY RAINS FLOWING THROUGH TWO MINES IN THE PATAGONIAS.

 

bout that “spill” of sulfuric acid from the big copper mine down in Cananea: We wonder what 10 million gallons of “spilled” sulfuric acid looks like. We understand spilled milk. But 10 million gallons? “Spill” doesn’t seem to be quite the right verb.

If you have ever spent time in and around the San Rafael Valley, these pictures from The Patagonia Resource Alliance will make you sick. We will be excused if we sound just a little skeptical about the view offered by Grupo Mexico, the owner of the Cananea mine, the Buena Vista del Cobre.

Last month Juan Rebolledo, a spokesman for Grupo Mexico, said: “The content of these acids is not toxic in itself.” He said there was “no problem, nor any serious consequence for the population, as long as we take adequate precautions and the company pours lime into the river, as it is currently doing.”

The website thinkprogress reported schools were closed because of the spill. People had no water. Evidently, lime did not resolve that problem.

A report from Forbes dated Sept. 29 says the spill of 10 million gallons of toxic chemicals is the worst environmental disaster in Mexico’s history. The story goes on to say that the owner of Grupo Mexico, German Larrea Mota Velasco, is worth more than $14 billion. And that’s very impressive, particularly in a country as impoverished as Mexico. The Forbes report also says Grupo has established a $151 million fund to clean up the mess caused by the toxic spill.

Meanwhile, Excelsior, the Mexico City newspaper, reported Aug. 25 a 240-ton sulfuric acid spill from a railcar in Nogales. This spill was near the Santa Cruz River. We should wonder if that spill will flow north. That is what happens because Nogales and the border region is at higher elevation than Tucson. The flow from the San Pedro and Santa Cruz Rivers is north to Tucson. The San Pedro flows to Benson and San Manual, skirting the Tucson area.

Arizonans have come to embrace the often-cited need for copper mines because they create jobs and make us all happy, very rich and prosperous. Moreover, we live quietly, if not comfortably, with the open pits they create — Morenci is a favorite — and the towering mountains of slag, particularly in and around Tucson. We all understand the importance of copper in the world, that is to say China, a country that is doing its best to subjugate and oppress the people of Hong Kong as this very moment.

As much as we revere copper, we wonder what all that orange liquid running through the streams of the San Rafael means? How will it affect flora, fauna and underground aquifers? What do you suppose will be done with the $151 million fund? You can buy only so much lime. And how come it’s $151 million?

After all that wondering, we will say this with some certainty: The San Rafael Valley is unique, one of the most beautiful spots in this or any state in the country, and to watch it suffer a major man-made environmental catastrophe is beyond painful.

Apparently we can only wonder what can be done about it.

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