MEXICO: UNESCO given evidence of Mitsubishi saltworks environmental violations

UNESCO scientists investigating the environmental risks posed by a plan by Mitsubishi to build a second large saltworks in Baja Sur, California, have been presented with evidence that Mitsubishi's existing saltworks regularly violate environmental regulations.

The four-member UNESCO team’s aim has been to determine whether the World Heritage Site of El Vizcaino Bioshpere Whale Sanctuary, near the existing 113 square mile salt facility and close to the site of the proposed, second saltworks, is in danger. If the scientists believe that the World Heritage Site – the last pristine nursery grounds for the gray whale – is in environmental danger they can give it protective status as a World Heritage in Danger.

“We presented UNESCO with our findings regarding ESSA’s record of environmental negligence at their existing Guerrero Negro salt factory,” Jared Blumenfeld, habitat director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), told edie. A coalition of environmental groups, including IFAW, and Nobel Prize winning scientists are fighting Mitsubishi’s plans to build the second saltworks (see related story).

“Many gave testimony highlighting that this record constituted the requisite damage to a World Heritage site to invoke a finding of ‘in danger status’,” said Blumenfeld.

The report alleges that the current saltworks violations have included poor handling of PCBs and other hazardous wastes, water contamination, pollutant air emissions, noise generation and the dumping of concentrated toxic brine wastes. The list of violations largely comes from evidence gathered by a Mexican environmental protection agency audit, carried out in 1995. The agency documented 298 environmental violations, 79 of which were considered serious threats to the environment. A 1999 status report, issued by the same agency, found that 134 of the 298 violations had not been rectified.

“A declaration of ‘in danger’ status by UNESCO would not automatically lead to a cancellation of the project,” explained Blumenfeld. “Many sites such as Yosemite and the Everglades are on the ‘in danger’ list and have benefited from this status. It should not be seen as a stigma. However, for Mitsubishi an ‘in danger’ finding would very likely lead to them to pull out from the project.”

Commenting on the UNESCO fact-finding trip and the separate, on-going environmental impact assessment, Blumenfeld is hopeful that Mitsubishi’s second saltworks will not go ahead. “We feel confident that this process will lead to the project being rejected.”

UNESCO has stated that it will present its report privately to the Mexican government prior to its official publication at the World Heritage meeting in November. IFAW and others would prefer that the report be made available for public comment at the same time that it is presented to the Mexican authorities.

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