Mexican town pays heavy price for precious metals
May 18, 1999
TORREON, Mexico (CNN) -- The Peñoles processing plant in northern Mexico produces thousands of tons of metal each month, making it one of the largest in the world.
While it exports gold, silver and lead to markets around the world, the residents who live nearby pay the heaviest price.
"We have 92 percent of the children studied who have very high levels of lead," says environmentalist Francisco Valdes. "That speaks to us that we do have a very severe epidemic of blood poisoning."
The plant sends a monthly average of one ton of gold, 180 tons of silver and thousands of tons of processed lead to the United States, South America, Europe and Asia.
But other statistics reveal at what cost the richness may come.
According to international standards, levels of more than 10 microliters of lead in the blood of children can cause neurological disorders and stunted development.
The children that live and play in the shadow of the plant, which the locals have named Black Mountain, average four, five and even eight times that amount.
"They do not eat well. Their heads always hurt," says one mother.
Lead, arsenic, cadmium and other toxins contaminate the ground surrounding the plant.
Families have organized to pressure the company to eliminate the pollution, provide medical care for the children and relocate their neighborhoods.
The federal government also has lent its support.
"The most important thing for us as environmental authorities is to make sure the neighborhoods are cleaned up, that people are taught about the dangers of lead, and that the company pays for the cleanup," says Antonio Azuela, a special prosecutor with the Environmental Affairs department.
Peľoles has pledged $6 million for a trust fund to pay for medical treatment and housing relocation.
"We are trying to deal with a problem that already exists," says plant official Edmundo Mesta. "The backbone for us to have success in what we want to do is to have the community working with us."
Some remain skeptical. The government is considering whether to order the plant closed. Those who live nearby worry that proposed cleanup measures have come too late to save the land.
No matter what the government decides, Black Mountain will continue to cast its shadow over this community for a long time.
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