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Poisoning a Sanctuary for the Sake of Salt

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York. Joel R. Reynolds is a senior attorney and director of NRDC's Marine Mammal Protection Project in Los Angeles

In late December, tipped off by local fishermen, Mexican environmental authorities discovered 94 highly endangered giant black sea turtles floating dead in the waters of Laguna Ojo de Liebre--also called Scammon Lagoon--on the west coast of Baja California. After a six-month scientific investigation, the Mexican attorney general for the environment last month announced that these prehistoric marine creatures had been poisoned by a spill of toxic salt brine wastes from the sprawling industrial saltworks run by Exportadora de Sal S.A., a Mitsubishi Corp. joint venture on the shores of the lagoon at Guerrero Negro. The agency also discovered a fish kill, attributed to another brine spill in May of more than 4 million gallons from the ESSA plant.

These are stunning revelations about an operation widely promoted by Mitsubishi as virtually without environmental risk. It is this same salt works that Mitsubishi last year heralded in a full-page ad in the Los Angeles Times for “outstanding performance working in harmony with nature,” exemplifying its own environmental commitment, its own “partnership with nature.” Most troubling, it is this same operation that Mitsubishi now proposes to expand with a massive, 116-square-mile salt works--the world’s largest--at a remote, secluded and pristine lagoon called Laguna San Ignacio, 100 kilometers to the south of Scammon Lagoon.

Laguna San Ignacio is a wild place, internationally recognized as a sanctuary of unique natural beauty and diversity. Teeming with migrating sea birds and surrounded by rich fisheries that have been the mainstay of the local economy for generations, it has been designated a world heritage site by the United Nations and included by Mexico in the 6-million-acre El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve. Tourists travel from around the world to see and touch the magnificent, 40-ton “friendly” gray whales that spend the winter in the warm, salty waters of Laguna San Ignacio. With the relentless development of the gray whales’ historic breeding lagoons up and down the Pacific coast, this lagoon has become the last undisturbed winter refuge for the species.

This is no place for an industrial salt operation--let alone the world’s largest--as the deadly salt brine spills at Guerrero Negro should now make clear even to Mitsubishi. Indeed, Mexico’s report on the sea turtle kill issued last month is only the latest of several developments reflecting mounting opposition to the Mitsubishi scheme. In May, the Chamber of Deputies of the Mexican Congress voted to create a special commission to investigate ESSA and its environmental practices, at both its existing salt works and the proposed expansion at Laguna San Ignacio. This unprecedented commission may shed some light on ESSA’s true environmental record and, in particular, the number and consequences of brine or fuel spills, fish kills or other environmental incidents that have occurred, reported or not, at the Guerrero Negro plant.

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In June, a coalition of Mexican and international environmental groups formally petitioned the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO for recognition that the world heritage site at Laguna San Ignacio is endangered by the proposed construction and operation of a major industrial salt works on its shores. The committee is scheduled to consider the environmental petition at its December meeting in Kyoto, Japan.

There are a lot of places in the world to make salt. But there is no reason to do so in the heart of a biosphere reserve, in the one place on Earth where the last of the gray whale species can breed and calve undisturbed by human intrusion. Mitsubishi must abandon, once and for all, its reckless plan to turn this glittering natural jewel into salt.


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