Mexicans Protest Toxic Waste Plant

(IPS) – “Fuera Ecoltec!” (Get out Ecoltec!) protesters chanted in a demonstration Sunday in the Mexican town of Apaxco, one year after the start of a community blockade of a toxic waste processing plant run by a Swiss company.

From the highway visitors see the grey bulk of the factories against the sky. A banner reading Fuera Ecoltec! greets visitors to this industrial town 85 km north of Mexico City.

Citing health complaints they link to alleged pollution by Ecoltec, a subsidiary of Swiss cement maker Holcim, the people of Apaxco and neighbouring communities are trying to permanently close down the plant.

The protesters have already done so at least temporarily since May 6, 2009, when they set up a kind of camp on the street that leads to the plant’s entrance.

“We will not allow Ecoltec to continue operating here,” Gil said. “What can happen to us? They’re killing us anyway.”

According to the preliminary results of a health survey carried out in October by the non-governmental Centro de Diagnóstico y Alternativas para Afectados por Tóxicos (CEDAAT – Centre for Diagnosis and Alternatives for Those Affected by Toxic Substances), the health problems found among the local population include headaches, a persistent cough, sore throat and irritated eyes.

Of a sample of 305 patients, 262 — 86 percent — had symptoms of acute intoxication, while only 43 had no symptoms.

CEDAAT also tested 35 primary school students with an average age of nine. All of them showed memory problems, which were severe in 60 percent of the children, while 46 percent had attention deficit difficulties.

“We are facing a complex problem,” Arturo de León, a medical school professor at the Autonomous National University of Mexico who led the CEDAAT study, told IPS. “The local people are right, their complaints are well-founded: there are health damages here.”

Two serious incidents brought their outrage to a boil, giving rise to the creation of the Movimiento Ambientalista Pro-Salud (Pro-Health Environmentalist Movement), made up of concerned residents of Apaxco and the neighbouring municipality of Atotonilco.

The first incident occurred on Mar. 21, 2009, when 11 local men died while cleaning out a wastewater pumping station of the local water company.

According to the townspeople, they died of inhalation of toxic substances in the sewage system. But the official cause of death was listed as drowning.

Then on May 5, 2010, there was a leak of ethyl acrylate, a potentially deadly chemical that affects the nervous system, at the Ecoltec plant. The stench of the fumes spread to 11 surrounding communities that are home to a total of 30,000 people in an area of four square kilometres, where people complained of severe headaches, coughing fits, red, itchy eyes and a sore throat.

“I’ve had a sore throat and red eyes,” Inés Martínez, who could smell the fumes in her home, told IPS.

The Ecoltec plant began to operate in Apaxco in 2003, processing waste products like electric and mobile phone batteries, old tires and toxic waste to produce fuel used by local cement companies in their furnaces.

Contacted by IPS, the company, which was founded in 1993, denied that its activities caused any harm to the health of local residents, and offered, once the blockade is lifted, “to establish a committee to listen to and address all of the community’s concerns, doubts and proposals.”

Apaxco is located in an industrial belt where 115 factories operate, including a refinery of the state-run oil giant Pemex, which is building a crude oil processor that is set to begin to function in 2015, and cement plants belonging to Holcim, the Mexican companies Cemex and Cruz Azul, and France’s Lafarge, as well as four lime processors that provide local factories with raw materials.

In recent years, the cement companies have begun to burn old tires to obtain fuel as a substitute for natural gas and fuel oil, in a process known as co-processing, which involves the use of waste as raw materials or as a source of energy. Pemex has begun to produce less and less fuel oil because it is highly polluting.

In the United States, environmental authorities prohibited Cemex from engaging in co-processing — a practice that has given rise to protests and opposition in countries around the world, like Brazil, El Salvador, the Philippines and South Africa.

Antonio Gil, a local resident who worked for 25 years in Holcim, until 1995, watched his seven-year-old son die of leukemia in just one month after he was diagnosed in 2007.

“Now I realise it happened because of the pollution,” he told IPS in a shaky voice.

Gil agreed for his son to participate in a research study by the Mexican Social Security Institute, titled “Molecular Epidemiology of Acute Leukemia in Children”, on possible links between the environment and that disease.

The study was to include a home visit. Three years later, Gil is still waiting.

“Co-processing has a green veneer; they present it as a good thing for the environment,” said Fernando Bejarano, head of the non-governmental Centro de Análisis y Acción sobre Tóxicos y Sus Alternativas (CAATA – Centre for Research and Action on Toxic Substances and Their Alternatives).

“But that is deceptive. It is dangerous to mix these waste products,” he commented to IPS.

CAATA is pressing for Mexico’s compliance with the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), signed in 2001 and in effect since 2004, which seeks to eliminate or reduce pollutants like dioxins and furans.

Prepared to keep the blockade in place until the company pulls out, leaders of the Movimiento Ambientalista Pro-Salud are meeting Tuesday with federal environmental prosecutor Patricio Patron to demand that Ecoltec’s environmental permit be cancelled.

Ecoltec has several plants around Mexico.

In the meantime, Mexico’s environmental authorities gave the cement industry permission to replace up to 35 percent of the fuel they use with the product of co-processing, and are reportedly set to up the limit to 58 percent.