Norfluor S.V. Stepped Out Of Its Comfort Zone
Located near what was once considered the outskirts of Cd. Juárez, one of the world’s largest chemical plants has had its home for 20 years and has no intention of relocating, although residents and environmentalists wish otherwise. Norfluor, S.V. one of seven major manufactures of hydrofluoric acid, a highly toxic and widely used chemical substance, is legally located in the federally declared “high risk” zone but is now under the scrutiny of environmental, health and government authorities.
In both September and November of this year, Norfluor experienced chemical explosions which resulted in leaks of toxic substances. Now the U.S.-owned maquila has aroused the ire of community members and authorities alike and it looks like the fight will rage on into the new year.
Norfluor S.A. of C. V. is one of the seven greatest producers of hydrofluoric acid in the world and was established in 1979 under the name of Fluorex, S.A. of C.V. and today is owned by a Florida based company Lucier Chemical Industries, (LCI) Ltd. which, according to its website, considers itself “the fluoride specialist” as it “offers a wide range of speciality fluorides for water fluoridation and industrial applications.”
Norfluor creates a variety of chemical compounds in addition to hydrofluoric acid such as ammonium fluoride, ammonium bifluoride, and potassium fluoride. Most have industrial uses including compounds for etching glass, cleaning metal, and tanning animal hides. Norfluor’s products are also used in the petroleum industry.
Some 14 thousand tons of chemical substances are transported by train, usually at night, via nearly 20 kilometers of train tracks that run through Cd. Juárez and into the U.S. The company has won numerous transportation safety awards from railroad giants like Union Pacific and CSX Transportation. Norfluor primarily exports to the U.S., Canada, Europe and countries in South America.
Norfluor generates approximately $12 million U.S. each year and of that about $6.2 million go back into the local economy. According to the Data Center in Oakland California, 25 thousand metric tons of hydrofluoric acid are exported each year.
Alma Leticia Figueroa, director of the Cd. Juárez Department of Ecology and Civil Protection, lends the following to the discussion of Norfluor’s disputed safety standards. “This plant makes high risk chemicals, and in your kitchen you have cleaning products, and they’re the same thing.” Acknowledging the typical consumer demand for the products Norfluor makes, Figueroa also points out that, “All industrial activity has risk, but it is management under a sound contingency plan that will minimize the risk.”
Norfluor’s contingency plan is a bone of contention which has been furtively discussed since Norfluor refused plant entrance to press or authorities after the September 18 explosion which pumped a reported 600 kilograms of toxic substance into the air. The company was subsequently fined for their refusal and undoubtedly relived that no injuries were reported.
Another problematic area is the threat the company may pose to human welfare and the environment. Local experts, according to El Diario, believe that neither Cd. Juárez nor El Paso are prepared for the chemical accident that could potentially occur due to the unsafe operations at this plant.
“If there is a massive accidental leak of the gases produced, and it reaches the nearby populations, there will be many, many deaths,” according to Dr. Andrés Lugo, hazardous chemical specialist of the West Texas Center for Regional Poison Prevention.
Fluoride, the common denominator of the majority of Norfluor’s chemical products, although not carcinogenic, is believed to cause cancer, as well as respiratory, eye, sinus and skin problems. Although fluoride may be a relatively simple acid, it is extremely toxic and corrosive, therefore if contact is made it can burn a person quite severely.
Symptoms will not be immediately obvious with initial contact, however once the chemical has deeply penetrated tissues, the fluoride ion unites with calcium causing dramatic destruction in the tissues and can cause damage all the way down to the skeleton.
The Environmental Defense Fund of the U.S. believes that over 311 substances produced at Norfluor are dangerous to human life.
Additionally, the Binational Coalition Against Toxic and Radioactive Dumping and the International Alliance of Ecologists have reported that labor practices inside and outside the Norfluor plant cause up to 700 harmful accidents each year.
However, Rene Franco Ruíz, environmental assessor of the chemical plant says that the equipment and the personnel are capable of managing the chemicals and their security. Also, David Messerlie, president of Lucier Chemical Industries, Ltd., said that Norfluor is run under great precautions and has spent millions of dollars to continually improve the facility. The LCI Ltd. website touts the company’s dedication to safety demonstrated by safety training which is provided for its customers and their customers. Everyone is “fully aware of the hazards associated with each chemical they purchase from LCI and Norfluor.
María del Pilar Leal, Cd. Juárez representative for Mexico’s federal environmental protection department (Profepa) said that for ten years the plant has done nothing to implement environmental regulations.
A few kilometers from Norfluor a passerby can see “Plaster Mountain” a three acre wide pile of white anhydrite which stands out from the brown desert and mountain landscape surrounding Cd. Juárez. The waste dump is made up in great part of calcium and other byproducts of the fluoride chemical production.
Many say it may not be an environmental hazard, but it’s an eyesore. While even others say that it may very well contain toxic substances which will eventually infiltrate the aquifer.
Franco Ruíz, however, insists that the “famous plaster concrete mountain is not toxic and has no contaminants nor will it ever.” The bi-products harden so quickly, according to Ruíz, that they are never airborne. He explains that the material could be used for paving streets or making bricks, neither of which the company has taken on because the process would mean a great investment in machinery and overhead.
A Chronology of Recent Events
Approximately 200 residents were evacuated after Norfluor experienced an ammonia leak leaving a toxic cloud hovering over the five colonias that neighbor the chemical plant. Authorities in both El Paso and Cd. Juárez questioned the safety of the plant and the possibility of subsequent explosions. Norfluor would not allow any inspections to be performed however they put out a statement claiming the cause of the explosion was electrical and no one was injured.
After the occurrence of the first hydrofluoric acid explosion on September 18, which caused a leak of 600 kilograms of ammonia, the plant was partially shut down by Profepa. Norfluor would be allowed to continue at full capacity when the electric system that lead to the first ammonia leak was replaced. The city government fined the plant $35,500.
Public outcry continues against Norfluor, and community members unite with NGOs protesting the harm that the plant is believed to be causing to the region. One sore point is the proposed chemical waste dump to be located in Samalayuca near the colonia Valle De Juárez. The group says that they will fight this proposed dump in the same manner that the proposed waste site in Sierra Blanca, Texas was fought. The Sierra Blanca border site was successfully stopped in December of 1998. Julián Carreón, legal director of a protest group, said that intervention continues against Norfluor who has failed to pay the fines filed against it for refusing to allow authorities access to the facilities after the September explosion.
A second explosion occured at Norfluor causing a leak of 160 kilograms of ammonia. Neighbors say they heard an explosion while representatives of Norfluor say there was no explosion only a power outage which lead to the leak. They announced that the leak was not the deadly substance hydrofluoric acid as had been rumored, but ammonia. Again, no injuries were reported although 80 employees were evacuated and an inspector from the Cd. Juárez civil protection department was allowed into the plant.
Investigations of the Norfluor plant performed by Cd. Juárez city council members representing three political parties revealed that some of the older equipment being used has not been maintained, that there is a lack of maintenance in some of the structures and there are buildings that show signs of leakage and corrosion.
The director of Norfluor, Duncan Jorge del Toro Rullán, commented that this is the first such open dialogue between authorities and representatives of the plant and that he hopes the open discourse continues. “This visit is an opportunity for the air to be cleared and many mistaken concepts to be rectified.”
It was noted that there is no government agency currently monitoring the quantity of substances that are released into the air, and that they follow the world standards. Del Toro also said that the chemicals released do not cause any serious harm to humans.
The council members commented that the work done in this plant is necessary, however, regulation and communication have got to be implemented. Although, according to Pablo Gómez, the inspection was restricted because the factory was only working at 60% capacity. According to Leticia Figueroa, the company has much work to do to bring their facility up to environmental safety standards. “It is a long list.”
Although it has been demanded by community members, closing the plant is not a likely possibility because of the long term residence the factory has had in the south part of Cd. Juárez.
The city of Juárez announced that they received the assistance of Technological Institute of Cd. Juárez to monitor Norfluor’s dumping area to determine the impact the dumped chemicals have had on the environment and the inhabitants of the area. The portable test station will test for carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide along with other substances.
It was announced that Norfluor received an additional fine of $15,369 (U.S.) from the federal government of México. The city had already fined the plant and announced that it would ask for the revoking of the company’s business license because although it is located appropriately in the city’s hazardous chemical zone, it is not following safety standards.
Profepa announced that it will consider relocating Norfluor if its levels of contamination are not acceptable. “We can consider the possibility of the security plan to see if the levels are acceptable,” said attorney general, Antonio de la Cueva Azuela.” The most recent leak did not have harmful consequences and was not qualified as dangerous, but we have to proceed with extreme vigilance.”
Norfluor received an extension for payment of the city’s $35,500 fine which gives the company more time to prove its safety. Considered in this extension was the fact that many of the nearby residents who have filed complaints against the company are not living in the area legally as it is zoned “high risk” which excludes any personal habitations.
According to Hector Podaca Salas, director of the city’s civil protection department, “There has not yet been a complaint filed or medical documentation provided that proves anyone’s health has been harmed.” The agency has warned residents to not make random complaints as it will only further delay the investigation process.
However, environmental activists and neighbors protested against Norfluor demanding their re-locating out of the area and that the government apply real sanctions against the maquila. Jesús Sarmiento, a neighbor, said that at the plant continues to release toxic chemicals, however, the director of the city’s civil protection department said she hasn’t received any notice of a chemical leak.
It is announced that medical examinations of employees and nearby residents will be conducted by state health officials and that Norfluor did not keep up with its required examinations of employees. Norfluor is believed to have at least 27 major safety problems.
Federal authorities demand an environmental investigation be implemented in January to determine if the plant should in fact be closed or sanctioned according to Pilar Leal. Both operations and labor will be monitored for fifteen days. It has not yet been decided how to act on the November 1 explosion but a resolution is expected in two months. A major production line at the plant remains closed.
This highly charged situation effects many issues in the border region including environmental and human safety as well as effecting the political and commerce arenas. It is expected that this will continue reporting as the bureaucratic and civic discussions and actions ensue.
Considering that this company is U.S. owned, and the greatest demand for the products come from the U.S., the following makes an interesting final note. Larry Whipple, Fire Chief of El Paso said, “I don’t want to say that the environmental laws in México don’t exist, but the mechanisms for applying them are not nearly as successful as those in the U.S.”
Sources: El Diario, El Norte de la Ciudad, LCI-ltd.com, El Paso Times