WILMINGTON – Seeking facts on a chemical plant they say threatens their neighborhoods, Mexican activists met Thursday with Du Pont Co. officials in Wilmington.
Residents of the Mexican border city of Matamoros joined members of a New York activist group, asking Du Pont to spell out the hazards of a 16-year-old factory built and partly owned by the company.
Du Pont will “respond to the extent we can” to the queries, working with the plant’s managers, spokesman Cliff Webb said. Most of the data requested could be released within a week, said Alfonzo Ruiz of the Mexican firm running the factory.
New concerns about the Quimica Fluor plant arose after Mexican President Carlos Salinas decreed a “safeguard zone” around the plant in January, activist Juan Gutierrez said. He spoke through an interpreter at a Wilmington press conference.
The zone’s residents – within a mile and a quarter of the plant – could be endangered by an escape of toxic hydrogen fluoride from the factory, according to a copy of Salinas’ order provided by the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras. Members of the New York human rights group joined Gutierrez at the Wilmington meeting.
According to the coalition, 30,000 residents live in the threatened area. But Joaquin Carmona o Du Pont’s Mexican subsidiary put the number at 8,800.
Officials and activists differed sharply on other key points. Salinas’ order will take land and homes away from residents in the safety zone, said coalition member Domingo Gonzales of neighboring Brownsville, Texas.
But “the intent never would be to force them out of their houses…The object of the decree is to prevent further growth” in the booming area around the plant, said Ruiz, general director of Quimica Fluor S.A. de C.V.
Salinas’ order stops new construction in the zone and says the government will “induce the relocation” of its current residents. Such relocation would be voluntary, and could receive government aid, Ruiz said. Farming within the zone would continue.
Ruiz’ firm manages the hydrogen fluoride plant, designed and built by Du Pont in the early 1970s. Du Pont owns a third of the business, and buys much of its product used in petroleum refining. A consortium of Mexican businesses owns the other two-thirds.
Matamoros residents found out about the government decree in March, launching a “grass-roots mobilization,” Gutierrez said.
But Ruiz said news of the safety-zone plan had been published in 1988. “I don’t see how this could be a surprise,” he said.
Company and government officials met with civic leaders in March to reassure them their homes were safe, he said – yet rumors persist that the government will take over private property for the safety zone.
Among other information, the coalition seeks the environmental studies behind the decision to create the zone. Government officials worked from Quimica Fluor data to lay the boundaries, Ruiz said.
Company and government officials have withheld the studies, the coalition said. But Ruiz said his firm hadn’t met with the coalition before Thursday.
Quimica Fluor will collect and release most of the information within days, he said.
“We want to be very open about this. There might be technicalities that are confidential, but of things of value to the residents, there are no secrets,” he said.
Ruiz and the coalition differ on the dangers of a hydrogen fluoride spill. To Ruiz, the 2.5-mile-wide safety zone is adequate – “dilution occurs quickly,” he said.
But coalition lobbyist Fred Millar said that in an industry study, a small release of the chemical produced a lethal cloud that traveled five miles.
Thousands live within such a distance from the Matamoros plant. An estimated 400,000 live in the Mexican city; another 100,000 live across the Rio Grande in Brownsville.
The plant reimbursed neighboring farmers for crops damaged by chemical leaks between 1977 and 1983, Ruiz said. Annual payouts reached about $1 million in 1980; the seven-year total was $2.16 million, he said.
A 1980 accident killed two workers and badly burned 10, but did no injury to neighbors, livestock or crops, Ruiz said.
The Guardian (London)
August 21, 1992
Profits of Doom on the Border of Blight
By Peter Lennon
Sitting in a cafe in Matamoros, I asked Domingo Gonzales, a member of the Texas Centre for Policy Studies, about a local factory around which a safety zone had been created. The factory produces hydrofluoric acid used in refining gasoline to produce high octane fuel. In many places in the US hydrofluoric acid – which burns out the internal organs if inhaled – is being phased out; California has banned its manufacture close to any inhabited zone.
Gonzales said the safety zone had been declared from the central stack out to 2,000 metres of this Quimica Fluor plant. The people who lived in that area were warned that an accident at the plant could be extremely dangerous. The problem was that they had nowhere to go.
“At least legally this ruling should give the workers some redress?” I said.
“It is the reverse,” Gonzales said. “What has really been created is a liability-free zone for the factory owners.”