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The sacred and the toxic

Tohono O’odham tribe fights a hazardous landfill


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.

Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, a coalition of environmentalists from more than 250 Native American communities, argues that the order requires the EPA to demand that Mexico move the hazardous waste facility to a location that does not impact members of the Tohono O’odham tribe, including those living in northern Sonora. By simply encouraging Mexican-O’odham discussions, Goldtooth contends, the EPA is “shoving the problem on the tribe.”

Bradley Angel, executive director of Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice and a consultant for Tohono O’odham traditionalists, says, “They (EPA officials) need to quite clearly tell the Mexican government that the hazardous waste facility would have an unacceptable impact on U.S. citizens.”

But even within the 100-kilometer border zone, the EPA has limited influence over Mexico’s decisions on hazardous waste facilities, Jones says. “We are trying to the best of our ability to fulfill our trust responsibilities with the Tohono O’odham and act on their behalf in trying to deal with another sovereign entity, which is Mexico,” he says.

The facility proposed for the Quitovac area is one of a half-dozen hazardous waste dumps planned for northern Mexico. The U. S. and Mexico have long recognized the need for Mexico to develop more hazardous waste facilities as Mexico continues to industrialize. Mexico exports most of its hazardous waste to the United States, where a haphazard tracking system makes it extremely difficult to determine how much hazardous waste is entering and where it is coming from.

Additional facilities in Mexico would reduce illegal dumping and the distance that hazardous waste must be transported, EPA officials say. “From a safety standpoint, any time you can reduce the distance you transport hazardous waste, it makes sense,” says Emily Pimentel, an EPA Region 9 official in the waste and enforcement division.


Arizona regulators are taking a more aggressive stance against the proposed hazardous waste facility than the U.S. government. In an October letter to the EPA, Arizona Department of Environmental Quality director Steve Owens noted opposition to the dump by the Tohono O’odham and representatives of the Mexican municipality of Plutarco Elías Calles, which includes the Mexican border town of Sonoyta. Owens asked the EPA to require further technical analysis that would provide answers to “numerous valid questions that remain about this facility.” Without further study, he wrote, “ADEQ can not feel assured that the project will be constructed and managed in a manner that will fully protect the natural resources and public health in the Arizona-Mexico border region.”

The EPA has not responded to Owens’ request.

Officials in Sonoyta, Mexico, have refused to approve a land-use plan and issue construction permits for the dump. In fact, Sonoyta’s leaders have supported demonstrations organized by Tohono O’odham traditionalists and Sonoyta environmental groups, including one that shut down the international border for several hours during the Thanksgiving weekend.

It is not clear, however, whether a lack of permits has stopped construction from beginning. Early in January, a High Country News reporter and photographer attempted to drive to the proposed dump site, but a security guard in an unmarked truck ordered them to leave. It was clear that heavy equipment had been using the dirt road, and there was evidence the road had been graded and widened.

EPA officials consider it unlikely that construction would begin on the hazardous waste facility without approval from local Mexican authorities. “It’s our understanding there is no work and we would be pretty surprised if there was,” Pimentel says.

That doesn’t make Guadalupe Lopez Duarte, the principal of a small boarding school in Quitovac, feel any better. The school, which serves about 60 O’odham students, is located a mile west of Mexican Highway 2, the route to the proposed dump.

“The people that are bringing the chemicals don’t have to live with it,” he said. “But we do.”

The author lives in Tempe, Arizona.