The sacred and the toxic

Tohono O’odham tribe fights a hazardous landfill

  • The Quitovac spring and pond, are sacred to the Tohono O’odham people

    CHRIS HINKLE
  • Within miles of the spring, a truck patrols behind the locked gates of the site of a proposed hazardous waste dump slated for construction, despite objections from the tribe

    CHRIS HINKLE
 

QUITOVAC, SONORA, MEXICO

A great blue heron rises from reeds growing at the heart of a two-acre, spring-fed pond nestled — miraculously — in one of the driest deserts on Earth. The bird glides over a one-room hut made from ironwood and dead saguaro stalks, strapped together. Despite its frail appearance, the shelter has stood for generations.

Nearby, two members of the Tohono O’odham worship silently above a seep where water feeds the oasis. The Quitovac spring and pond constitute one of the most sacred sites for the O’odham people, whose lands once stretched from south-central Arizona deep into northern Sonora.

“We do an annual ceremony here which we believe has been held since the O’odham were created,” says Ofelia Rivas, director of the O’odham Rights Cultural and Environmental Coalition. The spring and pond complex, traditionalists say, is particularly crucial in reconnecting young O’odham to their cultural heritage.

The area is far from pristine; a few hundred yards away, the impoverished O’odham village of Quitovac is littered with rusting hulks of automobiles and decaying household appliances. But trash can be picked up, and washing machines hauled away. Protecting the pond from a hazardous waste landfill is a less straightforward undertaking.

Mexico’s Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) approved plans for a landfill near Quitovac in October 2005, with little public discussion and without notifying the U.S., in apparent violation of the 1983 La Paz Agreement, which requires the exchange of information on hazardous waste facilities within 100 kilometers of the border. And throughout the approval process, little information has been made public on the company proposing to build the dump, Centro de Gestión Integral de Residuos, S.A. de C.V of Hermosillo, Sonora.

Despite — or perhaps because of — the lack of information, the proposed 247-acre hazardous waste facility has triggered widespread opposition from an array of organizations that fear the dump will contaminate groundwater. The dump, which would be located 92 miles southwest of Tucson, is projected to receive 45,000 tons of hazardous waste per year and could accept some 16 million 55-gallon drums of waste over its 50-year life.

The Tohono O’odham Nation is vehemently opposed to the facility because of its proximity to Quitovac and other villages in northern Sonora where several thousand enrolled members of the Tohono O’odham tribe live. Unlike the United States, Mexico does not convey reservation status on traditional O’odham lands. “We have sent Mexican and U.S. officials our concerns opposing the construction of the hazardous waste facility,” says Tohono O’odham chairwoman Vivian Juan Saunders. “They are well aware of our position.”

 

So far, O’odham opposition to the waste facility has attracted no response from Mexican environmental officials or the company that proposes to build the facility.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has asked Mexican authorities to meet with Tohono O’odham leaders but has also concluded that the dump poses an insignificant threat to the United States. “We don’t advocate one location versus another, because that’s just not our job,” says David Jones, EPA Region 9 associate director of the waste management and enforcement division.

Last year, the EPA hired the Booz Allen Hamilton consulting firm to study the dump; the firm found significant shortcomings in the design, emergency plans and proposed operation of the landfill. Still, Jones says, the EPA’s official role in regard to the dump is limited to facilitating discussions between Mexico and the tribe, particularly because technical analysis shows that potential groundwater pollution would flow away from the U.S. and toward the Sea of Cortez. “We cannot be absolutely sure from the data we have, but indications are that it is highly unlikely that groundwater would flow (toward Quitovac),” he says.

Environmental and Native American rights groups say the EPA is failing to fulfill its responsibilities under a 1994 executive order meant to protect minority and economically depressed populations — including Native American tribes — from disproportionately high levels of environmental contamination.