How a Japanese-run wastewater treatment plant in Mexico shamelessly polluted

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Hydrogen sulfide, a dark brown acidic substance which gradually eats away at iron and steel structures, is dumped directly into the rivers. This is how the residents of Ixtaczoquitlán, a municipality in the Mexican state of Veracruz, describe the effects of the Alto Río Blanco Wastewater Treatment Plant that has been operating in the area since 1995. “But the worst thing is the horrible smell,” says María Ramírez, a farmer who lives close to the plant. “The children get sick all the time.”

The second largest in Veracruz, this treatment plant operated by the transnational Mitsui & Co. Infrastructure Solutions, was temporarily closed on August 21, 2023, by the State Environmental Protection Agency (PMA) after failing to comply with the urgent measures imposed upon it several months earlier.

“During an inspection carried out in May, they were asked for their authorization for water discharge and their registration as a Special Handling Waste Generator, as well as other licenses they failed to produce,” says Gaspar Monteagudo, head of inspection and surveillance at PMA. “Consequently, a report was drawn up and they received notification that they were to take urgent action to avoid serious damage to health and the environment.” The PMA also requested an independent technical report that included an analysis of air and water quality. “The results showed extremely high levels of contamination,” says Monteagudo who states that the plant discharges 700 liters of contaminated water per second every day into the Escamela River.

According to the report seen by EL PAÍS, the treatment plant receives wastewater from at least six municipalities and a dozen companies in the area, and is run by the Japanese firm without the required permits and without compliance with the most basic regulations. Among the infractions cited in the report are daily leaks of pollutants, water discharged into the river even more contaminated than when it entered the plant, water infested with pathogens that are discharged directly into the environment with no controls, and very high levels of toxic gases inhaled by locals living in the vicinity, around 9 miles from the city of Orizaba.

“When it rains a lot, the stinking water seeps through the holes in the roads,” says Abigail Simbrón, 36, who runs a small business from her own home, a stone’s throw from the plant. “Because of the poisoned air, things spoil, everything rusts.” Successive complaints from the public about the impact of the plant prompted an inspection by the PMA at the end of 2022. The arbitration was supported by the state governor, Cuitláhuac García Jiménez, who is also president of the trust that manages the wastewater treatment plant, Firiob. García Jiménez strongly condemned the practices of Mitsui, which allegedly ignored governmental recommendations.

Ramón Moreno, the director of Mitsui in Mexico, denies any negligence. “They came to carry out inspections in May and we responded by showing evidence that the accusations were unfounded,” he says. “From the moment Mitsui took over the operation of the plant [in 2004] it has fully complied with the regulations, water quality levels and the terms of the signed contracts.”

The report from the regulatory authority is, however, categorical: the company does not have the permits to operate, nor did it respect the basic parameters established by the regulations. “Months ago, it was unanimously decided the contract be rescinded,” says Edgar Carmona, an environmental chemist and the new director of Firiob. When his team arrived at the Mitsui plant, they were stunned by what they found: “The technology is obsolete, the infrastructure is on the verge of collapse, many of the reactors do not work, there are failures throughout the entire machinery chain, the pipes that carry the bio-gas are outdated. And there are many irregularities; for example, the list of contracted personnel does not correspond to the staff who work there,” adds Carmona, who specializes in waste management and the rehabilitation of natural areas.

“There are no operating manuals, the water carries heavy metals, a lot of lead and aluminum, and is discharged directly into the river,” says Mario Júarez, environmental technician for the waterworks trust. According to the report, the plant also fails to comply with the parameters stipulated by the latest Mexican Official Norm 001-Semarnat, which establishes the limits for pollutants in wastewater discharges at much lower levels than those expelled by Mitsui. “Not only is it catastrophically contaminating our natural surroundings, it is also violating human rights,” says Carmona. “We are talking about a serious public health issue.” Since the PMA’s ruling, it has not yet been determined who will now be in charge of operating the plant.

Built almost three decades ago, the treatment plant receives wastewater from the Veracruz municipalities of Ixtaczoquitlán, Orizaba, Huiloapan, Ciudad Mendoza, Nogales and Río Blanco, which together have more than 250,000 inhabitants. Almost a dozen companies from various sectors — paper mills, breweries, tanneries — with at least 200 factories in the Córdoba-Orizaba industrial corridor also send their wastewater here. “The water comes out of the facilities dirtier than it goes in — the color of Coca Cola — and ends up directly in the Escamela River, which flows into the Blanco River,” says Carmona, looking out over the enormous mouths of the pipes that discharge the contaminated water into the region’s spectacular surrounds. The area is home to Pico de Orizaba National Park, Mexico’s highest mountain, and Cañón del Río Blanco National Park, a refuge of pine and oak forests of vast biodiversity.

The water discharged from the plant continues downstream to the extensive coffee and sugar cane plantations and affects the chayotales fruit grown on the riverbanks, on which the farmers in this high mountainous region of Veracruz depend for their livelihood. But nature and its products are not the only ones at risk from the uncontrolled contamination of the Mitsui plant.

Ecological damage and risk to local health

Separated from the treatment plant by a fence is an elementary school that has been impacted by its proximity for years. “Parents often complain about the conditions their children are subjected to and frequently decide not to bring them in because the smell is too strong,” explains Yair Condado, a teacher at the school for the past 17 years. “The humidity and the gases emitted by the plant have been affecting our facilities for years,” he adds, pointing to the ceiling of a classroom and the peeling walls. “Often classes have to be suspended because the children feel nauseous.”

Meanwhile, according to the director of the Ixtaczoquitlán health center, Miriam Pellico, “We frequently attend to children with headaches, sore throats, respiratory and gastrointestinal problems. Wastewater is full of pathogens that turn into gas. By interacting with organic compounds, they can cause many infections. This plant has also been releasing tons of hydrogen sulfide into the atmosphere every day, at much higher levels than what the regulations establish, putting lives at risk,” adds Juarez.

The PMAs head of Inspection and Surveillance, Monteagudo, insists that the company was given “enough time” to install an emissions control system. “The amount of sulfur expelled by the plant was extremely high. And they ignored it, putting the population at risk,” he says.

According to Monteagudo, Mitsui is responsible not only for endangering the health of the inhabitants of Ixtaczoquitlán, but also the wellbeing of the workers themselves. “There are many industrial safety problems here,” he says. “The employees are completely unprotected against leaks; there are not even containment dikes for contaminated water. An accident can happen again at any time,” he adds, in reference to the death in 2021 of Hiram Martínez, an operations manager who lost his life when he fell into one of the plant’s discharge channels. The court case is still open and adds to the litany of irregularities exposed by the PMA report. “It was an unfortunate accident in an area of the plant whose construction the company was not responsible for […] We are very sorry for this loss and we have supported Hiram’s family in every possible way,” the company said in a statement to EL PAÍS.

However, a worker consulted by EL PAÍS, who preferred not to give his name for fear of reprisals, says that when the incident occurred, no one reacted swiftly enough to save Martínez’s life. “The company, which is responsible for safety, did not assume any responsibility,” he says, adding that he was not at the plant the day of the accident. “It took up to four hours to recover the body because they were not prepared to act. He drowned in a facility that is less than three meters deep. I have been here for more than 20 years and I have witnessed how the facilities have deteriorated. There is no maintenance. There is a lack of all kinds of equipment, there are not enough employees and those that exist are not trained to operate it.”

Inaugurated in 1995, this wastewater treatment plant became the most important in Mexico and in the whole of Latin America. It has been run by Mitsui since 2004 and is not the only facility that the Japanese company has in Mexico. The regional government of Jalisco state awarded the company a new contract in 2022 to expand the operating capacity of the El Ahogado treatment plant, located in the El Ahogado municipality. The water from this infrastructure flows into the Santiago River, the most polluted river in the country. The transnational is now also responsible for the Atotonilco plant in Tula, in Hidalgo state. It is the largest in the world and the subject of several complaints from activists due to the social and environmental issues that have arisen since its inauguration.

“If these are the results of its operation in Ixtaczoquitlán after more than 20 years of experience, how will they run things elsewhere?” says Carmona. Since he assumed the direction of Firiob, his aim has been to achieve proper sanitation of the wastewater that reaches the plant while improving its impact on the entire area of Veracruz, where the environmentalist is originally from. “I was born and raised here,” he says. “I have dedicated my life to protecting these landscapes. We are not going to allow someone from outsid.

Source: El Pais