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Ecologists Fear Baja Salt Mine Would Threaten Gray Whales

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As Baja California residents celebrate the California gray whales’ annual arrival at birthing grounds along the peninsula’s shores, environmentalists warn that the most pristine of the four bays that become whale nurseries each winter is seriously threatened.

A salt company that shares the whales’ winter home is planning to more than double a mining operation that already makes Mexico the world’s second-largest salt exporter.

The operation would expand to the shore of San Ignacio Lagoon, inside the Vizcaino Desert Reserve set aside in 1988 to protect the whales and other marine life. In an important test of how Mexico’s economic crisis will affect environmental policy, the government is expected to rule this month on whether to permit the $120-million expansion.

Authorities must weigh the potential for environmental damage against the 200 jobs and an estimated $100 million in additional export revenue that the project would generate for the salt exporter, Compania Exportadora de Sal, which is 51% owned by the cash-strapped Mexican government. Mitsubishi Corp. of Japan has the other 49%.

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The decision will be based largely on a 465-page environmental impact statement by an independent consulting firm concluding that the proposed project’s impact on the whales would be “insignificant.” But scientists who reviewed the report at the request of a Mexico City environmental organization called the Group of 100 have reached starkly different conclusions.

“If this is a correct interpretation of what the (law) allows, we can assume that the reserve is functionally meaningless in terms of protection of habitat and species,” said one biologist, who like many of those interviewed asked that his name not be used.

Until now, Vizcaino has been a model of how a biosphere reserve should function, providing sanctuary for animals, education and fun for visitors, and a source of income for the fishers and farmers who are allowed to live inside its boundaries.

The excellent management of the reserve is considered a major factor in the recovery of the gray whale population. Once hunted nearly to extinction, gray whales were removed from the endangered species list in June, 1994.

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At 6 million acres--slightly bigger than New Hampshire--the Vizcaino Desert Reserve is the largest protected area in Latin America. Aside from a few small, uninhabited core areas, most of the reserve is a buffer zone where people try to live in harmony with nature.

Several species of sea turtle and seal inhabit the reserve, and migratory birds visit each year. An archeological site within its boundaries is the oldest evidence of human life on the peninsula. But the whales are the stars.

Every winter, more than 20,000 California gray whales swim 11,000 miles from Alaska, along the western coasts of Canada and the United States to Baja California. Some go all the way south to Magdalena Bay, more than 600 miles southeast of San Diego, but most stop halfway down the peninsula, in or near the Guerrero Negro, Ojo de Liebre and San Ignacio lagoons within the Vizcaino reserve.

The lagoons are so important to the whales that they return year after year. They even kept coming after hunters, who waited there in ambush, decimated the population a century ago. Recognizing the area’s significance to what was then an endangered species, the Mexican government established a whale sanctuary at San Ignacio Lagoon in 1954, the same year that Exportadora de Sal began operating up the coast at Guerrero Negro Lagoon.

During the 13 years that the firm operated at Guerrero Negro, dredging in the small lagoon, the number of whales there dropped dramatically, according to Bruce Mate, director of the marine mammals research program at Oregon State University. An expert in tracking marine mammals, Mate has studied gray whales for two decades.

In 1967, Exportadora de Sal moved its operations to the larger Ojo de Liebre Lagoon, which it since has shared in a fairly harmonious manner with whales. The scope of protection for the whales and the size of the protected area expanded over the years, culminating in the creation of the biosphere reserve.

Whale-watching in the lagoons has become a major tourist attraction, providing jobs for both San Diego travel agencies and local residents. Females mate one year and give birth the next, assuring that the lagoons are filled all winter with calves and with males breaching in courtship displays. San Ignacio Lagoon has the additional attraction of “friendly” whales that approach boats.

Because San Ignacio also is favored by females with calves, activity there is carefully regulated: Boats are only allowed in the bottom third of the lagoon and are strictly prohibited from pursuing whales.

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“They do a good job of monitoring,” said Karen Ivey, owner of San Diego-based Baja Discovery, which has organized whale-watching tours to the lagoons for a dozen years.

The government, however, has not done a good job of telling people about the proposed new project, complain scientists, buffer-zone residents and even local environmental authorities. That makes them wonder how well the potential impacts of the project have been evaluated.

“What worries me is the lack of information,” said Jose Angel Sanchez, a reserve official. “The (design) work that was done is the way to make the project most profitable for the company.”

The environmental impact statement, like all such reports in Mexico, will be made available to the public only after it is approved by environmental authorities--tantamount to approval of the project. The Group of 100 obtained a copy of the report and distributed it to scientists, who were shocked by what they read.

“It’s woefully inadequate,” one biologist said. “The concept that a land-based operation will have no impact on the lagoon is very shallow.”

“Most of the details necessary to evaluate the project are missing,” says an evaluation that another scientist prepared for the Group of 100. “It contains 21 pages of impact analysis and five pages of recommended mitigation measures, none of which are specific or detailed in any way. . . . Overall, there is an outright dismissal of the potential for impact.”

The salt-mining project will cover nearly 130,000 acres--one entire shore of San Ignacio Lagoon--and will include a mile-long dock for oceangoing vessels about 12 miles from the mile-wide entrance to the lagoon.

“In relation to the potential negative effects on the gray whale migration, there are no precedents to determine whether a mile-long obstacle perpendicular to the coast will affect the migration of this species,” the report said. “As a result, the impact is unpredictable.”

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The report mentions no other possible impact on the whales except to note that the possibility of interaction between them and ships is “significantly reduced” because government surveys show that whale traffic is about two miles from the planned dock.

Scientists who have studied whales in the San Ignacio Lagoon were surprised at the mention of the surveys because they did not know such reports existed.

As much as those interviewed worry about the effects of the dock, they are even more concerned about what will happen if the dock is unusable during winter storms or summer hurricanes.

The 16,000 metric tons of salt produced every day would have to be shipped out somehow, and environmentalists are concerned that the company would send barges into the lagoon to bring the salt out. “It is not clear that could be done without disturbing the whales,” said Steven Swartz, a marine biologist who studied the whales at the lagoons from 1977 to 1982.

The report does not mention any alternative to the dock.

Nor does it contemplate any effects from pumping 462 million tons of seawater out of the lagoon each year to make salt, which may reduce the salinity of the water. The high salt content of the lagoon’s water is thought to make the whales more buoyant and to be one of the reasons that females with calves gather there.

“We are afraid that the ecological balance will be upset if they extract huge volumes of water from the lagoon,” said Jorge Peon, president of a fishing and farming cooperative at San Ignacio. He is concerned not only about the whales, but also about fish that reproduce in the lagoon.

“We do not have the resources to do our own study, and the company has not had the decency to keep us informed,” he said. “The company ignores us.”

Company officials did not return telephone calls. Last month, General Manager Juan Bremer told the newspaper Sudcaliforniano, in the city of La Paz, that the project will not affect any type of flora or fauna and that the two-year study of the project focused on environmental issues.

Baja California Sur Gov. Guillermo Mercado has expressed firm support for the project and termed environmental concerns about the project “disinformation.”

Scientists and environmentalists acknowledge that they cannot prove the project will harm the whales and other animals that live in the reserve. But they say the company has failed to prove that it will not.

“The question is whether this is a biosphere reserve in name only, or is it really a refuge?” Mate said.

“The primary mission of my research is to find out where the critical habitats are, so we can protect them,” he added. “The gray whale is the only whale species where we know where they are all year round. If we cannot in some way assure the critical habitat for a species like the gray whale, I question whether what I am doing is worthwhile.”


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