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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • BACKCOUNTRY FILM FESTIVAL MANAGER
    Boise-based Winter Wildlands Alliance is looking for an experienced and highly motivated individual to organize our annual Backcountry Film Festival and Tour and coordinate additional...
  • LAND CONSERVATION MANAGER
    SUMMARY Leads, administers and manages the land conservation, conservation easement stewardship, and property management activities of the City of Fort Collins Natural Areas Department within...
  • CLEAN ENERGY PROGRAM ATTORNEY, NEVADA
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is seeking a Staff Attorney who is passionate about Western communities and the protection of the natural environment to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Deschutes River Conservancy in Bend, Oregon
  • WATER POLICY ANALYST WITH WRA (BOULDER)
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates seeks a passionate Water Policy Analyst with knowledge of western water issues to join our Healthy Rivers Team to strengthen...
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.