Complaint against Mexican government and Mitsubishi for salt plant damage to gray whale nursery

provided by the Natural Resources Defense Council


he International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) have endorsed a complaint filed by fifty non-governmental Mexican organizations belonging to the Union of Mexican Environmental Groups, together with Greenpeace Mexico and the Grupo de los Cien.

On March 10, these groups filed a criminal complaint with the Mexican Attorney General's Office in the case of the deaths of 94 sea turtles and other species that occurred between the end of 1997 and early 1999 as a result of discharges of residual brine from installations belonging to Exportadora de Sal SA (ESSA), in Laguna Ojo de Liebre, Baja California Sur, a part of the El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve of Mexico.

ESSA is a joint venture between giant Mitsubishi Corporation of Japan (49 percent owner) and the Mexican government (51 percent owner) to produce salt through the evaporation of sea water. It is the largest salt evaporation plant in the world.


It's just criminal


Mexican law defines harming wildlife as a criminal act. These environmental organizations decided to comply with their legal duty to denounce these events once they learned of them through reports and inspections undertaken by Mexico's Federal Prosecutor for Environmental Protection (PROFEPA) and other competent authorities.

"This legal action confirms that the existing Mitsubishi salt factory is an environmental catastrophe. We cannot allow Mitsubishi to replicate this nightmare in the last pristine breeding ground of the gray whale, Baja's Laguna San Ignacio. This battle will be won by Mexican environmentalists. This legal action is the first real shot," says Jared Blumenfeld, IFAW's Director for Habitat Protection.

IFAW and NRDC have endorsed the criminal complaint through letters addressed to the Mexican Consulates in Washington, D.C. and Boston, Massachusetts.

"We strongly support this action by our Mexican colleagues to compel their government to enforce laws against toxic dumping at Mitsubishi's existing saltworks at Guerrero Negro. This action should finally put to rest Mitsubishi's contention that its proposed saltworks at Laguna San Ignacio would be environmentally benign," said Jacob Scherr, NRDC's Senior Attorney. Their involvement results from the fact that the sea turtle is an internationally protected species since 1996

Laguna Ojo de Liebre is also part of the El Vizcaino Whale Sanctuary, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993. Hundreds of gray whales mate and give birth there each year, after travelling thousands of miles from the arctic waters of the Bering Sea to the protected refuge of Mexico's warmer coastal lagoons.

Through their inspections, Mexican authorities concluded that the company caused the turtle death tragedy through highly saline brine discharges into Laguna Ojo de Liebre. They also discovered 287 batteries discarded by the company on the lagoon's floor, also a crime under Mexican law. From the beginning, the company has denied responsibility for the turtle deaths. The same authorities that collected the evidence have failed to pursue the criminal aspects of the brine discharges, in spite of the fact that prosecution is non-discretionary under the law.

The organizations which presented the criminal complaint decided to act in the hope that the competent Mexican authorities will fully comply, without any further delay, with their obligation to effectively enforce Mexican environmental law. They also expect that the authorities will be consistent with their repeated claims that protection of the environment is not solely a government responsibility, but one to be shared by civil society as well.

ESSA, however, denied releasing any brine concentrate into the lagoon at the time of the black sea turtle deaths. It said a second government investigation found no proof ESSA was responsible.

"After conducting an extensive investigation by a scientific committee along with an independent technical group, [government environmental investigating body] PROFEPA stated that there is no evidence that the deaths of the sea turtles could be attributed to the salt works,'' ESSA said in documentation on the company prepared for reporters.

ESSA has been operating a saltworks on the edge of the Ojo de Liebre lagoon since the 1950s and wants to open a second one at nearby San Ignacio lagoon, where more than half the gray whales are born.

  Contact: Susan Bennett, Ellen Beard, 703-518-5170