Battle over Baja salt factory rages on
A gray whale frolicks in Laguna San Ignacio, where the Mexican government and Mitsubishi Corporation have proposed the world's largest salt factory.
November 18, 1999
Web posted at: 12:21 p.m. EST (1721 GMT)
The six-year, uphill battle to build the largest salt factory in the world at Laguna San Ignacio, Baja, Mexico, continues to collect its foes — the latest being the city of Los Angeles. The largest salt factory in the world just happens to be planned for Mexico's largest natural preserve.
The salt works is a joint venture of the Mexican government and Mitsubishi Corporation and the area targeted for it along the Baja coast is as yet untouched by industry and is the last spawning and nursing ground for the endangered California gray whale. Conservation groups, American celebrities and esteemed scientists all claim the factory will destroy the lagoon and the reserve's flora and fauna.
"The world's largest corporation wants to build the world's largest salt factory in an area with four levels of legal protection which is also the last pristine breeding and birthing ground for the gray whale. There are only 60 western pacific gray whales left," said Jared Blumenfeld, director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
In July 1994, a joint venture under the name of Exportadora de Sal, S.A., called ESSA, submitted the first environmental impact assessment on its plans to build the salt evaporation facility. The Mexican National Institute of Ecology, INE, rejected the EIA on the basis that the plan was incompatible with Laguna San Ignacio's protected status.
A Mexican coalition of environmental groups promptly formed the Coalition to Save Laguna San Ignacio to oppose the salt factory in the preserve. The International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Natural Resources Defense Council were asked to join the coalition in January 1995.
A second EIS is being translated into Japanese for employees of the Mitsubishi Corporation, who will review the EIS and decide whether they want to continue with the project. The INE has final say on the project's approval or denial. ESSA and the Mitsubishi Corporation have vowed not to proceed if the EIA determines that the project would be harmful to the environment, according to Mitsubishi.
"We're trying to convince Mitsubishi it's not in their best interest, as an environmental corporate citizen or in terms of looking at the bottom line, to submit the EIS to the INE," said Blumenfeld.
The Mexican government has also been the target of protests — the coalition erected anti-salt factory billboards in Mexico City, said Blumenfeld.
A group of 34 prominent scientists, including nine Nobel laureates publicly stated that Mitsubishi's project poses "an unacceptable risk" to the lagoon's biological resources. Nearly one million people around the world have sent letters of protest to Mitsubishi and this past August, international parliamentarians passed a resolution urging Mitsubishi not to proceed with its proposed project, according to the NRDC. Despite protests, Mitsubishi forges ahead with its plans for the salt factory.
ESSA has operated another salt factory for 45 years in nearby Guerrero Negro and Ojo de Liebre Lagoon, 87 miles away from the new proposed site, but it has reached its capacity, according to ESSA. In December 1997, 94 dead sea turtles washed ashore near the salt factory. The deaths were tied to an increase in salinity in the lagoon caused by the salt factory.
Nearly 300 violations of 22 different laws were filed against Mitsubishi regarding the Guerrero Negro site. Thatprompted a coalition of more than 50 Mexican environmental groups to file criminal charges. Other scientific reports show that the Guerrero Negro salt works has disturbed whale migration patterns, dumped batteries and combustible fluids and destroyed bird-nesting areas, according to the NRDC.
The City of Los Angeles decision to oppose the salt factory makes it the fifth California city to do so along with San Francisco, Berkeley, Sacramento and Poway.
In 1997, NRDC hosted celebrities like Jean-Michel Cousteau, Glenn Close and Robert Kennedy Jr. on a visit to the proposed salt works at San Ignacio.
The coalition's main concern is that the salt factory will disrupt the ecological balance of the area and especially the potential loss of prime gray whale nursing habitat. The preserve, which is a United Nations World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve, is home to many threatened species, including the Mexican and peregrine falcon, peninsula pronghorn, white pelican, golden and fishing eagles and sea turtles.
Mangroves, a small tree that protects the shore from erosion and birds also live in the area. Eight percent of the flora found in the region is unique to the preserve and it is also the last refuge for one type of antelope, the berrendo, which is in danger of extinction.
The gray whale (Eschrichtus robustus) is a baleen whale that makes the longest migration of any mammal. After spending all summer in the Arctic seas, the gray whales complete a 10,000-mile journey down the Pacific Coast to its breeding lagoons in Baja California, Mexico, and back again to the Arctic. Approximately 25,000 known gray whales are still living and about 6,000 making the journey to the Baja area. Of that group, approximately 2,000 enter lagoons along the coastline and about 350 enter Laguna San Ignacio, according to Mexico's government census.
North and west of the lagoon extend miles of natural salt flats. Salt water has flooded the area over hundreds of years and created these salt flats slowly, allowing the surrounding ecosystem to adapt. Salt flats serve the important function of allowing high tides and storm water to spread into the desert without flooding the mangrove forests and other plant and animal habitats.
The result today is thousands of acres of level, virtually lifeless areas with an abundance of sun, wind and an impermeable soil base, according to ESSA.
The controversial salt evaporation facility is proposed for operation on 116 square miles of coastal tidal flats and mangroves. Pumps, operating night and day, would draw in 6,000 gallons of saltwater per second, creating a salt stockpile. Fuel and water tanks, a 1.25-mile-long pier with a shipping dock and conveyor belts, workshops, headquarters buildings and facilities are also part of the plan.
Every aspect of the new project has been designed and planned with the preservation and protection of the local environment in mind, according to the ESSA web site.
There are few other locations in the world that can accommodate this type of project and, without additional sources, demand for salt is projected to exceed capacity within the next decade, according to ESSA. If the propose site is approved by Mexican National Institute of Ecology it will take 10 years to become fully operational.
The El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve is the largest habitat preservation reserve in Mexico, covering an area of 60,706,449 acres. The Sierra de Baja California mountain range serves as the its western border. In the center is the Vizcaino Desert, spanning all the way to the sea in the vicinity of the San Ignacio lagoon. To the East are mountains and volcanoes, as well as some plateaus and depressions. On the west coast there are many bays, lagoons, canals and islands.
Copyright 1999, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved
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