Baja's Whales vs. Mitsubishi

by Nathan LaBudde

Earth Island Journal, Summer 1998


... Human travelers arriving where the lava strewn desert and jagged mountains of Baja's El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve meet ~ he Pacific shores of San Ignacio Lagoon often notice something striking beyond l he area's green mangroves and wildlife: l his lagoon possesses a unique quiet.

People travel to this isolated spot to commune with another creature that finds sanctuary in San Ignacio's tranquil waters.

Each year, thousands of Eastern Pacific gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) undertake a 5,000-mile migration, one of the longest of any mammal on Earth. This epic trek begins in the whales' winter feeding grounds in the northern waters of the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort Seas and ends at four southern breeding lagoons located in Baja California.

Of these lagoons - Guerrero Negro, Ojo de Liebre, San Ignacio and Magdalina Bay - only San Ignacio has escaped the grip of the modern world. Except for some unpaved roads, a few fishing cooperatives and some tourist camps with no electricity or plumbing, this place is untouched by human impacts. Gray whales returning to San Ignacio from December to March find the lagoon's warm, shallow water ideal for birthing and raising calves. One other thing makes this unspoiled lagoon unique: It is home to the "friendly grays." where, unlike any other place on Earth, whales and their newborn calves actively seek out contact with humans, to be touched by boatloads of human visitors. Unfortunately, an environmental Sword of Damocles now hangs over San Ignacio Lagoon as the Mexican government and Japan's Mitsubishi Corporation attempt to resurrect a proposal to build a $120 million industrial salt production facility in the heart of this quiet, isolated gray whale refuge.

The Sultans of Salt

Just weeks after the US government's Endangered Species List downlisted the gray whale's status from "endangered" to "threatened," the Mexican Ministry of Trade secretly launched a scheme to transform 116 square miles of protected area adjacent to San Ignacio Lagoon into an industrial salt production facility. The project is the brainchild of Baja's largest corporation, ESSA, a company jointly owned by the Mexican government (51 percent) and Japan's Mitsubishi Corporation (49 percent).

ESSA exports seven million tons of salt a year from it's 40-year-old Guerrero Negro facility, 80 miles north of San Ignacio Lagoon. The proposed San Ignacio facility would allow ESSA to produce an additional seven million tons at a much lower cost.

In January 1995, the Mexican Grupo de Los Cien (Group of 100) first sounded the alarm on the proposed saltworks after obtaining a copy of ESSA/Mitsubishi's confidential initial Statement of Environmental Impact (MIA, acronym in Spanish). The 465-page MIA contained only 23 lines pertaining to gray whales and referred to the San Ignacio region as having "little or no biodiversity."

That February, a devastating critique of the project appeared in a Mexico City daily. Grupo de Los Cien sought the aid of Mexican and US environmental groups, including Earth Island Institute. Ensuing outrage forced the Ministry of Environment (the Mexican equivalent of the EPA) to reject the MIA, citing the project's unsuitability for an area that is both a UN World Heritage Site and part of the Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve. In the spring of 1995, ESSA/Mitsubishi appealed the ministry's ruling, but further pressure from environmentalists soon forced withdrawal of the appeal,. ESSA is expected to resubmit a revised MIA in the summer of 1999. |

In July 1997, ESSA/Mitsubishi announced design changes to the San Ignacio project meant to address opponents' environmental and socioeconomic concerns and, in October, offered to undertake 18 months of gray whale scientific studies at San Ignacio Lagoon in order to prove that the project would not adversely affect the whales . The Mexican Ministry for the Environment has promised that the revised MIA will face the highest degree of scrutiny. In addition, any whale studies attached to the new MIA will be subject to review by a special Scientific Committee comprised of seven top US and Mexican gray whale scientists.

Despite the promise of new gray whale studies, environmentalists continue to assert that industrial development is incompatible within a Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site.

"The idea of building an industrial salt factory at a gray whale sanctuary, a protected area, is ridiculous," says IMMP Director David Phillips. "Under Mexican law, the guidelines pertaining to all commercial development within a biosphere reserve are straightforward. The development must be a conservation activity, it must maintain cultural values, it must come from or aid the local community, and it must protect the core of the biosphere itself."

A Salt on the Land

If the salt plant were built, this pristine plain would be disrupted by air, water and noise pollution from trucks, earth-movers and a ten-mile-long conveyor belt as wide as a four-lane highway. In addition, 18 diesel-fueled engines would have to operate continuously to pump saltwater.

San Ignacio's natural salt flats would be replaced by a 100-square-mile matrix of dikes and saltwater concentration ponds. Rainwater and tidal floods could no longer move nutrients between the salt flats and the lagoon's larger ecosystem. Canals and pump stations would siphon 6,000 gallons of water each second from the lagoon into the concentration ponds, altering the lagoon's currents, threatening larval fish and killing all life sucked into the intake canals.

Salt bitterns, a toxic by-product of salt production, would be stored in retaining ponds at the facility before being diluted and released back into the ocean at the lagoon's entrance. Bitterns contain magnesium sulfate, potassium chloride, bromine, iodine and other toxic compounds. ESSA's critics fear that heavy rains or breaks in the facility's dikes and retaining walls could release a flood of bitterns into the lagoon.

Another concern is the mile-and-a-half long salt-loading pier that would be built to the north of the lagoon's entrance in the Bahia de los Ballenas (Bay of the Whales), a vital lobster and abalone fishery for the nearby community of Punta Abreojos. Each month this pier would be visited by eight ocean-bound salt "supertankers" and additional supply ships. Ships off-loading diesel fuel at the pier could spill toxic fuel, dump trash and discharge bilge water into the otherwise pristine waters outside the lagoon, risking the introduction of exotic species.

ESSA/Mitsubishi already faces criticism for its environmental record at the Guerrero Negro saltworks. Numerous toxic spills, ensuing fish die-offs, and pollution became the subject of a 1995 Grupo de los Cien lawsuit charging ESSA with environmental negligence and recurrent violation of Mexican laws. When ESSA began exporting from Guerrero Negro in 1962, gray whales abandoned that lagoon for a decade. This disappearance was undoubtedly caused by ESSA's dredging of the lagoon's mouth to accommodate salt barge traffic.

"No compromise is acceptable as far as a saltworks at Laguna San Ignacio is concerned. ESSA's record of environmental negligence at Guerrero Negro should be sufficient reason for turning down the project" says Homero Aridjis, President of the Group of 100. "The plant would make a mockery of the whole concept of a Biosphere Reserve and destroy crucial core and buffer zones of Mexico's largest protected area. This is not a vacant lot, or an industrial park, but one of the most fragile ecosystems in the world."

This past June, Grupo de los Cien and the Mexican Green Party forced the federal government to create a multipartisan 12-member commission in Mexico's Chamber of Deputies to investigate ESSA's environmental record at Guerrero Negro and the likely effects of the proposed saltworks at San Ignacio Lagoon.

An "Invisible" Operation?

Sensing that it can no longer use its political clout to win project approval, ESSA/ Mitsubishi is now trying to redefine the project as "invisible" and laboring to convince opponents of the facility's ecological benefits.

"This is not a big industrial plant, this is a low-profile operation, very similar to an agricultural operation" asserts Joaquin J. Ardura, ESSA's Technical Vice President overseeing the project. "It will improve the area because we are going to be making wetlands out of dead lands, so more birds will have a refuge."

While artificial wetlands created at the Guerrero Negro facility have provided a habitat for certain bird species, this solitary benefit cannot outweigh the project's clear environmental risks. ESSA officials present photographs of San Ignacio's salt flats as if these natural areas - part of the range of last herd of endangered Sonoran pronghorn antelope in Baja - were desperately in need of ESSA improvement."

"With 40 years of experience at our salt facility at Guerrero Negro," ESSA officials insist, "we can use our knowledge to ensure our project is environmentally sound." Forty years of trial and error experience manufacturing salt at Guerrero Negro does not give ESSA/Mitsubishi license to impose a developer's "make-over" on San Ignacio Lagoon. This place should be left untouched, so that Mother Nature - whose seniority far surpasses those of the ESSA/ Mitsubishi industrialists, company biologists and publicists - can continue in her greater capacity for creating beauty, mystery and harmony.


One small victory - Mitsubishi pulled out of San Ignacio Lagoon !!!

Environment watch