Black Gold Leaves a Stain on Mexican Coastal Region

Times Staff Writer

Felix Rodriguez was fishing under a bridge when he saw the gray cloud ooze down the Coatzacoalcos River toward him like some biblical plague. Then came the noxious odor, and he knew what had happened: another oil spill.

Thousands of barrels’ worth poured into the river Dec. 22 and eventually flowed five miles downstream to the Gulf of Mexico, coating the coastline with sludge in one of Mexico’s worst environmental accidents in years. The government issued a fishing ban that still has not been lifted, leaving 1,500 fishermen like Rodriguez in limbo.

“We’re tired of these disasters,” said Rodriguez, standing in his oil-smeared overalls after spending a day working with his small boat in the cleanup effort. “I’ve seen maybe 10 of these spills since 1975, but nothing like this.”


The kind of accidents that caused last month’s spill are routine events in Mexico’s oil patch. Here in Veracruz state, there are on average 100 “environmental emergencies” each year, according to Greenpeace Mexico. Two-thirds involve breaks or explosions in the corroded and outmoded pipeline network owned by Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, the state-owned oil monopoly.

Although the region has benefited from being the hub of Pemex’s oil exploration and refining activity, helping to make Mexico the fifth-largest oil producer in the world, it has paid a price in deaths, injuries, economic losses and environmental poisoning.

Pemex blames the federal government, saying it bleeds so much cash from the oil giant, there is only a pittance left over to maintain and reinvest in infrastructure such as pipelines.

The government seems to be insatiable -- it funds one-third of its budget with oil revenue. Last year it extracted more money than the oil giant generated from energy sales, forcing Pemex to go deeper into debt to satisfy the budget demands, said Luis Labardini of energy consultants Marcos & Associates.

But environmentalists and other public interest groups say Pemex’s problems are more complex, embedded in its corporate culture of “organized irresponsibility,” as local biologist Lorenzo Bozada put it.

The monopoly had a history as a polluter long before its 30,000-mile network of pipelines and pump stations began to corrode.


Toxic spills by Pemex have helped make the Coatzacoalcos River and its surroundings “one of the most contaminated regions in the world,” said National Autonomous University oceanography professor Alfonso Botello.

In the 1980s, the government commissioned an extensive study on the river’s pollution, Pemex’s role and what might be done to reverse it, Botello said. The 15-volume report was turned over to then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

“Disgracefully,” Botello said, “nothing has been done.”

Pemex’s defenders say the oil company has very little control over its revenue. The Mexican Congress has final say on how much the oil company can retain for modernization and upkeep, and it hasn’t shown much enthusiasm for setting aside the $3 billion that a Pemex official this month said was needed.

But any public pressure on Pemex to make improvements is limited because it is shielded from legal challenges by a judicial system that favors the government over citizens, said Alberto Szekely, a former Mexican diplomat who helped write the country’s environmental laws and is now a public interest lawyer.

“Environmental laws exist, but they are like dead letters, not enforced,” Szekely said, adding that they reflect Mexico’s authoritarian legal tradition, a holdover from a century of dictatorship and single-party rule. “The laws were devised in such a way that the only one who can represent the public interest is the government, even though in Mexico the one that causes the harm to the public interest is the government itself.”

In an interview, the nation’s special prosecutor for environmental protection, Jose Luis Luege, insisted that the government under President Vicente Fox had made strides in an area of law that didn’t make pollution a criminal offense until 1998.


“I think there is enough in the law to force Pemex to be a better citizen, and we are going to use it,” Luege said.

But others say Luege’s office is impotent because it cannot bring a case directly before a judge. It must go through a criminal prosecutor, who is often susceptible to political pressure or corruption and who in any case is disposed to defend the interests of the state, including Pemex, Szekely said.

Local pressure on Pemex is inhibited by the company-town aspect of this region, where tens of thousands of jobs are tied to Pemex oil wells and refineries. The nearby city of Coatzacoalcos has Pemex’s largest complex of refineries and petrochemical plants. Eighty percent of the families living here in Nanchital depend on Pemex for their livelihoods.

“We don’t want to scare the bird,” Veracruz Gov. Fidel Herrera said amid cleanup efforts, referring to the planned refinery called Phoenix that Pemex will soon build either here in Veracruz state or in Tamaulipas state.

Local biologist and university professor Lorenzo Bozada Robles said, “There is a tradition of submission to Pemex here.”

Gonzalo Rodriguez, who leads a farmer-based environmental movement called Ecological Producers Assn., said that submission was enforced by local leaders of the oil workers union, who discouraged public complaints about Pemex.


Last month’s devastating accident was caused by a pump house explosion that sent a surge of pressure through the 30-inch-wide pipelines running through this town. The break occurred at the edge of the river, sending between 5,000 and 15,000 barrels of crude into the current and into the gulf upstream.

“We’re not minimizing anything,” Jose Manuel Olivares Paez, Pemex’s top environmental protection manager, said during a meeting with local fishermen in Coatzacoalcos. “There have been bigger spills, but unfortunately this has had economic repercussions.”

Most of last month’s spill could have been avoided if the pipeline had had automated valves that shut down in emergencies, said environmental prosecutor Luege. But the 30-year-old line is still manually operated.

“We are going to force Pemex to apply methods of modernization and automation,” Luege vowed, adding that Pemex had automated the valve systems of most of its natural-gas lines but had not gotten around to updating the crude oil grid.

Alberto Lara, 54, another fisherman who like Felix Rodriguez was hired by Pemex to help with the cleanup, described a post-spill scene in Nanchital of oil-drenched pelicans struggling to fly and fish jumping through the oil slick trying to find clean water to breathe in, coming to rest on the carpet of sludge that covered the river. He has no illusions about the future.

“We live on a time bomb here,” Lara said.

Power was turned off and all cooking was prohibited here for the first two days after the spill, hurting hundreds of small-business people like tamale vendor Alejandro Reyes.


He lost sales as well as $100 worth of supplies that spoiled because refrigerators were turned off. His house, 30 feet from the river on Quintana Roo Street, has been smeared with crude left by cleanup crews. So far, there has been no compensation from Pemex.

“Pemex said it would at least paint the house, and they haven’t come,” Reyes said, adding that he was worried about the health consequences of inhaling the oil fumes. Several members of his family and neighbors reported a variety of ailments, including headaches, skin rashes and flu-like symptoms.

Although Pemex is promising fishermen it will compensate them for any work lost, people who have been victims of previous spills warn them not to count on it. Pemex’s record in paying for economic losses caused by pipeline breaks and other company actions is poor to nonexistent, critics say.

A prime example is the village of Balastrera, about 120 miles northwest of here, where on June 5, 2003, a natural gas pipeline exploded, killing five people and injuring 70, many with horrible burns, while destroying several houses and cars and killing farm animals.

Although Pemex paid some medical bills, Agustina Romero, 54, said that the monopoly had done nothing to repay townspeople for losses in property and livelihood. The explosion and fire destroyed part of her house and killed eight cows and sheep. A year and a half later, she complained, she has received no compensation.

“These things happen frequently around here, and it’s always the same -- no one receives any support,” Romero said. “We feel forgotten here.


“There are families in situations much worse than mine, with children with ugly burns on their faces and bodies. The doctor examines them, gives them medicine to ease the pains they still have, but nothing more,” Romero said. “No one can ease the emotional pain we feel.”

Szekely said citizens physically or economically hurt in accidents caused by Pemex or other state-owned companies had a better chance of getting arrested than of being compensated. “If you are too aggressive in demanding it, they put you in jail,” he said. “It’s happened several times.”

He cited the case of fishermen in the port city of Lazaro Cardenas in Michoacan state who complained that a new thermoelectric plant and docking facility had ruined their fishing grounds. Several were thrown in jail, he said. Residents opposed to a toxic dump for mud used in oil drilling in the town of Panuco have been threatened with jail.

Said convenience store owner Guillermina Villalobos, whose shop fronts the river here, “We are resigned to what happens.”

Meanwhile, Felix Rodriguez helps in the cleanup, the only way he has to make money now. He worries that even if the sea bass and shrimp he fishes for survived the spill, they will taste like oil.

“Who will buy our fish then?” he asked. “No one. Will we have any work at all?”