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Whales stall proposed Mexico salt mine

Gray whale
Mexico, Mitsubishi agree to halt development until completion of an environmental impact study.  
April 17, 1998
Web posted at: 6:13 p.m. EDT (2213 GMT)

By Environmental News Network staff

(ENN) -- Scientific institutions from Mexico and the United States are conducting an environmental impact study to see if a proposed salt mine in Baja California would disrupt one of the last gray whale breeding habitats in the world.

The Mexican government and Mitsubishi Corp. would like to construct a salt mine in the San Ignacio Lagoon. Environmental organizations are opposed to the project because they fear the mine would disrupt the ecological balance of the region, which includes historic mating and birthing grounds for gray whales.

In response to growing concern about the potential impacts of the salt mine, Mexico and Mitsubishi have agreed to halt development of the project until the completion of an environmental impact study.

After the study concludes in the summer of 1999, a panel of prominent scientists will review the results and make their recommendations.

According to Joaquin Ardura, technical vice president of Exportadora de Sal, S.A. (ESSA), "If the environmental authorities say no to the project, we will not continue with it. We will give respect to the decision, to the final decision from the authorities."

Pollution and the quality of the habitat

Although the gray whale was removed from the U.S. endangered species list two years ago and populations are said to be thriving worldwide, localized pollution along their 12,000-mile migration route and human overfishing continues to reduce the quality of its habitat, said Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of the late Jacques Cousteau.

"Here, California gray whales enjoy a safe refuge for mating and giving birth," Cousteau said. "The proposed project threatens to disrupt the delicate ecological balance among the mangroves, birds, whales and other species in the lagoon."

In 1954, the San Ignacio Lagoon was declared a sanctuary by the Mexican government. In 1988, the area surrounding the lagoon was set aside as the El Vizcaino Desert Biosphere Reserve. The area, of which the lagoon is a part, is a World Heritage Site.

Cousteau, upon return from a recent visit and study of the lagoon, said that the proposed project is "incompatible with the goal of preserving wildlife in and around the Sebastian Viscayno Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site, of which San Ignacio is an important part."

However, ESSA has said that the project is unlikely to harm this ecosystem, and will in fact draw new wildlife to the area through the creation of wetlands.

From ESSA's perspective, San Ignacio is an ideal location for the what it considers to be "a model sustainable development project that takes renewable resources -- sea water, wind and energy from the sun -- to create a mineral vital to human life and in high demand around the world."

The proposed mine includes more than 116 square miles of evaporation ponds, pumps and processing works, a pier and improvements to the nearby town of Abreojos, which would supply the workforce of 200 needed to operate the facility.

Is there a need for a new salt mine?

Even though Joel Reynolds, senior attorney and director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project for the Natural Resources Defense Council, doesn't believe that there is a current international need for a new salt mine, he said that "if economic development is the issue, there are many other locations where Mitsubishi may build their facility."

Reynolds said that the elements needed for a salt mine include lots of sun and salt flats, elements that can be found all over the world in places like Australia, France and, of course, Mexico.

The El Vizcaino Desert Biosphere Reserve, which includes the lagoon, is a World Heritage Site  

However, ESSA says there are few places in the world suitable for salt production, and the conditions needed to produce salt by solar evaporation are extremely rare.

To produce salt, ESSA says they need:

  • vast, barren salt flats or desert plains to accommodate shallow ponds
  • impermeable soils to hold water so it can evaporate
  • high temperatures and windy conditions to speed evaporation
  • safe access for ships
  • a natural salt-water source

Issue much bigger than whales

Reynolds believes that ESSA has decided to locate the facility at San Ignacio because it has a plant 150 kilometers north of San Ignacio in the town of Guerrero Negro, which would make it cheaper than operating a mine at a more distant site.

"If we have learned anything in the last century," Cousteau said, "it is that many development activities have long-term environmental impacts far beyond the ability of humans to foresee, or to limit."

"The issue is much bigger than whales," he said. "My concern is that with the proposed workforce will come a population increase that will disrupt the delicate ecological balance of the area. There is potential for huge human impact on populations of fish, birds, geese and marine species as well as on the Mangrove forest on which so many species depend."

"I have come to the conclusion that major developments such as that planned for San Ignacio Lagoon are fundamentally incompatible with protecting wild places and species," Cousteau said. "It is time to err on the side of prudence, and not at the expense of the future."

ESSA says their experience in the similar facility in Guerrero Negro does not indicate any reduction in the fishing industry and it appears that the only change in tourism has been positive, based in part on improvements in the basic travel infrastructure and available services.

Copyright 1998, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved

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