Empowering Environmental Authorities for Enhanced ComplianceMon, 10/22/2018 - 17:01
Q: How does PROFEPA address mining-related issues?
A: PROFEPA’s role is to oversee compliance with environmental regulations established by SEMARNAT. We have a policy for industrial monitoring that establishes criteria to select specific facilities for inspection. Even though we lack one specific to mining these criteria are applicable to it. Mining is a priority sector for us given the magnitude of its operations and the impact that an environmental accident could have. During Peña Nieto’s administration, PROFEPA visited all the legal mining operations in the country, which is around 1,150. This monitoring effort speaks to a supervising policy that allows us to acknowledge and register mine operations. This registry enables us to decide which operations we need to supervise more closely and on what matters because it is not our intention to review all the environmental obligations of a mine, but only those where we are more likely to find a lack of compliance. It would be impossible to supervise all mining operations in all aspects of their environmental obligations.
According to citizen surveys, the greatest worry regarding mining activities is related to water use. People often think that because miners use hazardous substances such as cyanide, they want to get rid of them. But more often miners actually want to get these chemical components back so they can reuse them. These are released accidentally, but not through daily operations. Most of the allegations we receive are on water contamination concerns, usually based on speculation and with no support from further research such as from COFEPRIS regarding cancer incidence in a mining area.
Q: What is your assessment of the main causes of environmental accidents in mine operations and how can these be addressed?
A: Only about 30 percent of companies are fully environmentally compliant when inspected. Irregularities are divided into minor errors and those severe enough to merit closure. Environmental law in Mexico was enforced in 1988 and the environmental impact regulation in 1992. So, the main environmental obligations began on these dates, as the law is not retroactive. Current legislation demands a permit for all the subsequent operations. Many companies that operated projects before the law was established have not acquired the permits for their later expansions. Companies are not often aware of this need, but ignorance is no excuse for exemption from compliance. However, non-compliance is rarely due to a lack of knowledge of the law. It is very typical in Mexico to ask for forgiveness instead of permission.
Day-to-day decisions are often made at low levels of the hierarchical structure. Production managers, usually pressed to deliver certain results to investors and shareholders, choose to violate environmental regulations. This is what happened at Buenavista del Cobre in Sonora. The environmental recommendation said the leaching basins should not operate until the emergency ones were functional, but management chose to take the risk. I believe environmental matters should be decided higher in the company hierarchy, such as is done in other industries.
Q: How can PROFEPA further increase its inspection and enforcement capacity during the next administration?
A: I think the lack of compliance is rooted in the physical incapacity that the government institution has. For example, PROFEPA has around 300 inspectors in the whole country but needs to handle many companies in multiple industries across multiple topics. Environmental legislation in Mexico keeps evolving, even if institutions are contracting. But it is well known that environmental institutions are taking a backseat due to political will and I believe that the environmental sector has been downgraded from a political point of view. We must be aware that this sector is important because it is in everyone’s best interest to preserve earth’s resources. Also, environmental destruction can stop huge projects, implying an economic loss. PROFEPA needs an urgent strengthening based on autonomy, technology and proper resources.