Mitsubishi Salt Plant Threatens Whales

by Nathan LaBudde

Each year, thousands of Eastern Pacific gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) undertake a 12,000-mile migration, one of the longest on Earth. They travel from winter feeding waters in the Arctic to four breeding lagoons in Baja, California.

Of these lagoons - Guerrero Negro, Ojo de Liebre, San Ignacio, and Magdalena Bay - only San Ignacio has escaped the grip of the modern world. Except for some unpaved roads, a few fishing cooperatives and tourist camps with no electricity or plumbing, this place is untouched by human impact. Gray whales returning each December find San Ignacio Lagoon's warm, shallow water ideal for bearing and raising calves.

125 years ago, whalers at San Ignacio Lagoon adopted the practice of harpooning gray whale calves in order to lure their mothers. Retaliating adult gray whales, 30-40 feet long and weighing up to 33 tons, smashed enough whaling skiffs in defense of their young to earn the name "devil fish." Today, San Ignacio Lagoon witnesses a much different interaction between humans and the former 'devil fish', as adult gray whales and their newborn calves actively seek out whalewatchers in small boats (pangas) and allow people to "pet" them.

Ominously, an environmental 'Sword of Damocles' currently hangs over San Ignacio Lagoon as the Mexican government and Japan's Mitsubishi Corporation are attempting to build a $120 million industrial salt production facility in the heart of this isolated gray whale refuge.

In Spring, 1994, just weeks after the US Department of the Interior downlisted the gray whale's status from "endangered" to "threatened," the Mexican Ministry of Trade 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 the Mitsubishi Corporation (49 percent).

In January, 1995, the Mexican Grupo de Los Cien (Group of 100) 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." Outraged Mexican and US environmental groups 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 Mexico's El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve. 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. In the spring of 1995, ESSA/Mitsubishi appealed the ministry's ruling, but further pressure from environmentalists forced withdrawal of the appeal.

In July, 1997, ESSA/Mitsubishi announced design changes meant to address their project's numerous environmental and socioeconomic shortcomings and, that October, offered to undertake 18 months of scientific studies at San Ignacio Lagoon in order to prove that the project would not adversely affect the gray whales. The Mexican Ministry for the Environment has promised that any revised MIA will face the highest degree of scrutiny. Despite the promise of new gray whale studies, critics continue to assert that this industrial development proposal remains incompatible within a Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site.

If the salt plant is built, San Ignacio Lagoon will be invaded 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 mammoth-sized, diesel engines will continuously pump saltwater from the lagoon. The Lagoon's natural salt and tidal flats will be replaced by a 100-square-mile matrix of dikes and saltwater concentration ponds. Diverted rainwater and tidal floods could no longer move nutrients between the salt flats and the lagoon's larger ecosystem. Canals and pumping 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 retained in 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. Heavy rains or breaks in the facility's dikes and retaining walls, a reoccurring problem at ESSA/Mitsubishi's Guerrero Negro facility, could release a flood of toxins into the lagoon.

Another concern is the mile-and-a-half-long pier to 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 fishing 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.

ESSA/Mitsubishi already faces mounting criticism for its poor environmental record at the Guerrero Negro saltworks. Numerous toxic spills, ensuing fish die-offs, and pollution are the subject of a 1995 lawsuit charging ESSA with environmental negligence and recurrent violation of Mexican laws.

Sensing that it can no longer use its sizable political and financial clout within Mexico to win outright approval for the project, ESSA/Mitsubishi is now laboring to convince opponents of the proposed facility's ecological benefits. "This is not a big industrial plant; it's a low-profile operation, very similar to an agricultural operation" asserts Joaquin J. Ardura, ESSA's Technical Vice President overseeing the project. "Like our facility at Guerrero Negro, 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 provide habitat for a select number of bird species, this singular benefit cannot outweigh the San Ignacio Lagoon proposal's tremendous 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/Mitsubishi "improvement."

In late December of 1997, over 100 Endangered Black Sea Turtles washed up dead on the shores of Ojo de Liebre Lagoon, in the shadow of the ESSA/Mitsubishi Guerrero Negro factory. At the time, salt-factory officials denied any responsibility or knowledge of this die-off, continuing claims that their facility has "operated in harmony with nature for forty years."

This past July, the offices of Mexico's Federal Attorney General for Environmental Protection (PROFEPA) released a 500-page report determining that a toxic salt brine spill caused the sea turtle deaths. Thousands of gallons of toxic brine, a by-product of salt production, were leaked into the Ojo de Liebre lagoon from a Mitsubishi/ESSA barge. The PROFEPA report is irrefutable proof exposing Mitsubishi/ESSA as irresponsible, industrial polluters. Despite this incident ESSA/Mitsu-bishi continues with it's plan to submit a revised MIA in the summer of 1999.

Use our FREE "Save San Ignacio Lagoon/Save the Gray Whales" activist postcard kit, contact Nathan LaBudde at the International Marine Mammal Project: (415) 788-3666 x147 or marinemammal@igc.apc. org.


International Marine Mammal Project
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or fax 415/788-7324