Toxic Tower

In The Mexican Village Of Cumpas, Residents Blame A Processing Plant For Illness And Deformities.

DARKNESS HAS purchased a firm grip on the hamlet of Cumpas, Sonora. It seeps into empty lots beyond tidy store fronts, and weaves among hushed bands of bitter men leaned against scruffy pick-up trucks, Marlboros angling from their lips.

It's also taken root in the eyes of several state cops, who are watching tonight's burgeoning crowd with feigned boredom. Suddenly their flat gaze turns narrow and sharp, as townspeople -- ranchers in yellowed cowboy hats, grizzled farmers, harried mothers and confused children -- are thrust like waves towards the street.

Across the pavement, weaving union men prompted by a nearby metals refinery hurl insults from mouths twisted with Tecate and mezcal. Just as quickly, a speaker jumps to a nearby podium, urging calm. Step back, he hollers to the crowd. Ignore them, he says. Soon, they will go away.

Slowly, resolutely, the moment of chaos dims, as the citizenry settles back into controlled rage over a refinery that has poisoned their water, tainted their air, and is blamed for awful deformities among their children and livestock.

For those born and raised among these tarnished high-desert hills some 100 miles below the United States border, the grimly efficient Molymex plant has become a cancer, plain and simple. In an otherwise picturesque, sun-drenched village of 4,000, it rankles as the symbol of eternal twilight bought and paid for by international trade, corporate greed, and a laconic, corrupt government.

Owned by a Chilean corporation called Molymet, the plant processes an ore called molybdenite, turning it into another called molybdenum trioxide. By and large, this tongue-twisting loop starts and ends in the United States, where the toughened end-product is molded for aeronautic and bicycle parts.

According to Mexican stock exchange documents, much of the molybdenite has come from recently defunct ASARCO, a huge mining company bought last year by the equally huge Grupo Mexico. Often leached from copper, molybdenite is sent south in varying concentrations. Most of that ore is reportedly collected in Grupo Mexico's plant in Nacozari, Sonora, roughly 30 minutes north of Cumpas.

Phone calls to Grupo Mexico's Tucson offices for comment were not returned.

Regardless, on the surface, it's a high-tech highway, born of lax environmental standards and stoked by NAFTA. But for the people living beneath the plant's gleaming smokestack, technology has been turned on its ear.

A profoundly deaf ear.

Now they've come to Cumpas' central square, both current victims and those in waiting, to hear a rousing round of speakers. They've also come to welcome us, an American contingent of activists and journalists, hoping we'll plead their case back home. We're an awkward band for such a burden: within moments of our celebrated arrival, the apparent conspiracy to deprive these people of their rights has turned from bad to ugly.

We're told the Molymex plant has been shut down for our visit, cunningly scuttling first-hand sightings of smoke pouring from its stack. Then a rented sound system on the downtown gazebo is removed, supposedly by Molymex bosses spending large sums for silence. Within an hour, the amplifiers are replaced by angry residents, under the leadership of Armando Gallego.

He heads a group called the Cumpas Committee for the Defense of the Environment, and says Molymex brought in "outsiders" to rile the crowd. "They aren't people from here."

A mechanic by trade, Gallego left Cumpas in 1979 to study industrial engineering, first in Chihuahua, then in Monterrey. He later returned home to find "a disaster taking place at the plant. They didn't have the right land use or operating permits. And people were starting to drown from the smoke coming from Molymex. I realized that for my own dignity I had to keep this fight going."

It's been a rancorous struggle ever since. Built in 1979 by a company called Grupo FRISCO, the plant initially processed fairly pure molybdenite culled from deposits in the surrounding area. By 1991, the refinery had closed, only to be acquired three years later for $3.7 million by the new owners, Molymex.

That company is a subsidiary of Chile's Molymet company, best known as the world's largest producer of rhenium, a metal used in super alloys. Not coincidentally, Molymet also ranks among top polluters in the Chilean capital of Santiago.

Now molybdenite from Chile, Canada and points throughout the United States arrives regularly in Cumpas, and its purity ranges wildly. That has prompted growing fears about refining by-products spewing from the gargantuan stack, as the company repeatedly dodges legally required safeguards through an endless string of appeals.

To keep operating, Molymex apparently relies on winking approval from foot-dragging government officials, and foreign companies relishing Mexico's notoriously loose environmental habits.

Still, perfectly legal factors could lie behind all the molybdenite arriving in Cumpas, says John Melone, director of the EPA's Chemicals Division. "Sometimes the reasons aren't the dark ones," he says. "Sometimes, just because of cost, these decisions (to export raw ore for refinement) are made." That cost can include little niceties like worker standards, shipping, effluent and air emission controls, he says.

All of which is little comfort to these people living far beyond the EPA's watchful eye. Indeed, only a month after the plant reopened under Molymex, villagers filed a complaint with Mexico's Federal Office for the Protection of the Environment, or PROFEPA, citing a sudden increase in gas emissions. That sparked an ongoing cat-and-mouse game with federal authorities.

In 1995, PROFEPA did shut the plant down due to excessive particulate emissions, especially molybdenum trioxide and molybdenum disulfide. Both can cause respiratory problems, while the latter, a carcinogen, is also known to damage the liver and kidney. Concerns were also cited over irregularities in disposal of hazardous materials at the site, and carbon dioxide produced by burning diesel fuel during processing.

Despite evidence of repeated non-compliance, the plant was nonetheless allowed to resume operation four days later.

Such capitulation came as little surprise to Molymex critics; even the original operating license, issued in February 1994, was amended a mere three months later to allow higher emission levels. However, that accommodation came with the proviso that reduced levels must be reached over time -- in this case, within 10 long years.

By 1997, Sonora's Ministry of Public Health reported that the plant's emissions (mostly nocturnal by the way, to avoid scrutiny) had repeatedly exceeded maximum legal limits. The report also noted a prevalence of respiratory problems in Cumpas 10 percent higher than the state average, and the absence of required safeguards for workers, such as emergency showers, eye care fountains and proper ventilation.

Since then, Molymex has responded with increasingly patchy emission reports.

Adding insult to injury, the company had agreed to donate $10,000 annually to local environmental projects. According to Gallego, those donations were then deducted from workers' compensation plans.

Attempts to contact PROFEPA officials and Molymex plant director Carlos Johnson for comment were unsuccessful.

In January, Gallego's committee tested 25 Cumpas residents for lead poisoning. Of those, nine registered above recommended safe levels, and two tested at more than three times the accepted limits. According to Dr. Jorge O'Leary, who keeps tabs on the Molymex situation from his Tucson office, those levels are suspected in the births of at least two anacephalitic babies -- born without brains -- in the city. "For a town as small as Cumpas, even two is extraordinary," he says. "Lead can also cause reduced brain development in all children, and a higher rate of miscarriages."

If all these problems didn't create enough fear, the situation grew grimmer when Molymex announced plans to double its production.

In the meantime, Gallego's group has continued pressing its case through official channels -- filing complaints of international violations under NAFTA with the Commission for Environmental Cooperation -- and by direct protest. At 4 a.m. on December 19, 1999, Gallego and three others were arrested and spent four days in lock-up, after they led some 200 residents in blocking the entrance to Molymex for 23 hours.

Quoted in the prominent Mexican journal Proceso, civic activist Ernestina Quintero called her companions "the first political prisoners of (new Sonoran Governor) Armando López Nogales," whom she said was outraged at increasingly vocal opposition to the plant.

"The (government) hadn't responded to our complaints for months," Gallego now says sardonically. "Nothing had been resolved. Then within 23 hours they sued us, and put us in jail. Everything they did very rapidly against us, because suddenly the governor was very interested."

All of which hasn't made Gallego overly popular with the powers that be, particularly those watching this nighttime, downtown rally, or the string of cars honking through town, splashed with epitaphs aimed at Molymex's Chilean masters.

A primer-gray Ford sedan rolls by, a forest of arms waving from its windows. "Chileanos Contaminante," says white letters scrawled across the rear window.

THE NEXT DAY, Gerardo Hoyos squints in the sun and pulls down a sinister looking mesquite branch. "See these?" the young rancher asks from where he stands, on his patch of desert next to the thoroughly gleaming Molymex plant. He's pointing to caterpillars, or what were meant to be caterpillars, maybe even moths. Instead, they're just flaky black exo-skeletons, stuck everywhere to the trees like grim ornaments. Hoyos blames their canon-deaths on acid fogs spewing from the plant. "This never used to happen," he says.

The branches themselves are black on the tips, as if dipped in ink. He points out his small herd of cattle, thin and skittish, gathered around a water tank. He has another herd farther away, all milking cows. He says he has yet to test that milk for lead. Sticking one hand down a pocket, he scratches his chin with the other, and admits he's a little scared at what testing could find.

Petra Noriega isn't so lucky; she already knows the ugly truth. The gray-haired grandmother says lead poisoning nearly double the safe limits has given her aching shoulders, sore elbows, a stiff neck. She knows a little girl that scored even higher.

Leaving Cumpas, we pass an attractive house draped in black iron -- bars lace its windows, floor-to-ceiling gates protect the patio. This is the home of Carlos Johnson, we're told, El Jefe at Molymex.

On this shining Sunday morning, El Jefe is nowhere to be seen.

Mayor Jose Manuel lives a few doors away. Throughout the feud, the mayor has maintained that economic benefits far outweigh pollution threats from the plant. But he's not home, so later we reach him by phone. He says Molymex's contested land-use permits are being corrected, and calls the current rash of illnesses "only the normal health problems for the winter season." As for everything else plaguing this tortured little town, "studies are being done to determine whether Molymex is disturbing the environment," the mayor says, sewing up all the questionable loose ends.

One by one, Huberto Quijada teases them back apart. An aging farmer in jeans and a dusty cowboy hat, he hardens his points by clenching a weathered hand. "In 1998, 30 people died with heart attacks," he says. "People much younger than that even, they go to bed, and they never wake up. Before, you never saw these kinds of things here. We were very healthy. Now we aren't. So many are dying so fast, we don't know what is happening.

"I'm a farmer, and we used to get a lot of high production. Now the crops grow only very small. I'm a member of the committee, and because of that, windows have been broken out of my car."

He pauses, pensively. "I have 35 grandchildren," he says. "I've told the Chileans here that my family here is worth more than all of Chile. And I've told them we'll take this all the way to the United Nations if we have to."

Representatives from Cumpas will appear at a potluck gathering from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Friday, March 24 in the Quaker Friends Meeting House, 931 N. Fifth Ave. For details, call 623-7306.
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