Arturo Rodríguez Abitia
Deputy Attorney for Industrial Inspection
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Rating Industry’s Environmental Record

Wed, 10/21/2015 - 12:28

Q: What is the purpose and the main responsibility of the Federal Attorney for Environmental Protection?

A: PROFEPA is an institution that was born 22 years ago and is responsible for the upkeep and monitoring of environmental compliance in Mexico. Mexican environmental legislation has existed for less than 40 years and has had to evolve to include industrial activities in a more rigorous and detailed manner. Today, of all the productive activities in the country, the industrial sectors are the most environmentally regulated. Stemming from the main environmental law, the General Law of Ecological Balance and Environmental Protection (LGEEPA), several official Mexican norms have been created, which help PROFEPA keep watch of increasingly detailed aspects of industrial processes.

Q: How does PROFEPA see the current state of environmental compliance by mining companies?

A: The mining industry is very diverse and includes a range of processes such as concentration, flotation, lixiviation, and physical separation, all of which present different levels of risk. This is why the environmental legislation has focused on those processes with the highest level of risk. There are many elements that influence the environmental performance of the mining industry in Mexico. The environmental legislation and the Mexican industries’ concern over the environment are relatively young. A large part of the environmental impact caused by the extractive industries occurred before there was any awareness of the impact that these industries had on the environment. This has generated a history of environmental liabilities or contaminated sites due to historic industrial activity. It is thus important to clarify that not all environmental damages caused by the mining industry are caused by recent activities.

Even though there is still much to do, the historical tendency of the Mexican mining industry is one of improvement. We currently have a record of 1,250 active mining operations which fall under the federal government’s jurisdiction, which does not include mines of aggregate minerals. Since 2013, we have visited more than 800 of the 1,250 operations, and our goal is to visit all mining installations before the end of 2015. Following the more than 800 inspections that we have completed, we have had to close down 34 operations. This means that we have closed one out of 24 mining operations that we have visited due to the imminent risks that it poses to the environment. During the other 23 inspections, we either found no irregularities or we found minor irregularities. When an large accident like that at Buenavista del Cobre happens, it attracts a lot of attention from the media and political circles, which then start treating the industry as if all mining operations in the country are regularly experiencing accidents. While there are high risk mining operations that do not operate under adequate conditions and can have a considerable impact on the environment, most mining operations cannot be classified as having a bad performance.

Q: What role did PROFEPA play before, during, and after the incident at Buenavista del Cobre?

A: PROFEPA was the driving force behind the actions taken to make Grupo Mexico responsible for the damages it caused, and could potentially have caused, through the incident at Buenavista del Cobre. Through PROFEPA’s administrative process, Grupo Mexico created a fund of MX$2 billion (US$137 million) and created mechanisms to provide indemnification for the damage caused to third parties. The trust is administered by SEMARNAT, Grupo Mexico, and three academic experts from UNAM and the Mario Molina Center. Moreover, until the matter is resolved, PROFEPA closed the expansion project of the Tinajas lixiviation pads at Buenavista del Cobre. This is a very ambitious project which aims at doubling copper production at the mine site. The fact that this expansion was temporarily shut down has really hurt the company and is the true detonator of the change in its behavior. The cost of the opportunities lost due to the closure of Grupo Mexico’s expansion project is in the hundreds of millions of dollars. This is why the company is nso interested in completing the remediation and paying the corresponding indemnization. If progress continues, the closure will be lifted in 2015. As part of the investigation, we also looked into all the operations at Buenavista del Cobre and opened three administrative processes to be resolved at the mine site. Furthermore, PROFEPA visited all of Grupo Mexico’s operations and opened additional administrative processes in some of them. This case has reminded mining companies that these types of accidents can happen to anyone.