Pesticide Action Network Updates Service (PANUPS)
May 3, 2001, marked the tenth anniversary of one of Mexico's worst pesticide disasters-- the explosion of the Anaversa pesticide formulation plant in Cordoba, Veracruz. On that date in 1991, the plant located 11 blocks from the center of Córdoba, a city of 300,000, exploded sending 38,000 liters of some of the deadliest pesticides on the market into thick toxic clouds blanketing several nearby neighborhoods. Among the pesticides were 18,000 liters of methyl parathion, 8000 liters of paraquat, and 3,000 liters of 2,4-D. With the plant up in flames and a 30,000 liter tank of highly flammable solvent about to explode, the all-volunteer fire fighters doused the fire with thousands of gallons of water. The water soon turned into a bright green toxic stream that ran through the streets for days contaminating the Blanco River and at least 120 local wells.
While no deaths were immediately reported, the number of acute poisonings were numerous and included classical cases of convulsions and tremors associated with organophosphate poisoning. Most of these, as well as cases of chloracne and chemical pneumonitis-- both associated with 2,4-D poisoning-- were ignored or mistreated by public hospital officials. Most victims were denied treatment at the local hospital if they claimed their illnesses were related to the Anaversa accident.
Illness and death touched every neighborhood near the plant. Leukemia took the life of one-year old Nancy Colorado in early 1992. Eight year-old Israel Calles was another early victim-- health officials denied any connection between the boy's eye cancer and the Anaversa fire. At least 25 pregnant women trapped in the vicinity of the fire gave birth to babies with a variety of congenital diseases-- no arms, multiple toes and fingers or neural tube defects such as spina bifada. In 1993, two years after a 40-year old school teacher suffered severe acute poisoning, her 17 year-old daughter gave birth to a hydrocephalic child with spina bifada. The daughter has since had her pre-cancerous uterus removed. In 1995, the teacher's mother died, of multiple tumors. By 2001, the association of Anaversa victims list over 200 deaths that they attribute to the plant explosion, including five of the attending firefighters.
The victims have still received no compensation despite sanctions imposed upon the private parties and government agencies deemed responsible, and Mexican health authorities continue to deny any correlation between the illnesses victims suffer and the explosion. Anaversa was fined 20,000 days of minimum wages (less than $4 a day in 1992)-- the fine was cut in half on appeal. Together with 100,000 pesos donated by then-governor Dante Delgado (later imprisoned for stealing public funds), the money was placed in a trust fund for the victims. However, since doctors refused medical corroboration, the municipal president refused to distribute the mysteriously-dwindling funds to victims. The incoming mayor gave what was left to a fund for an "ecological" park on the highly-contaminated Anaversa site-- the park was never constructed.
The case remains open. In 1997 a local deputy helped bring the case to the Organization of American States' Inter-American Human Rights Commission. This was the first time the Commission addressed connections between human rights violations and environmental destruction. The case, however, was suspended and will reopen this June when new information is presented on behalf of Anaversa victims and other community members who still await compensation.
A key component of the case will be that the "accident" was avoidable yet not prevented. The plant was repeatedly re-licensed by state and federal officials as a warehouse, not as a pesticide formulary. Although Anaversa was located near homes, schools, a day care center, a church and a thriving street market, the Environmental Secretariat (SEDUE) approved the location of the high risk installation. A December 1990 SEDUE report listed safety violations but saw no danger to the surrounding community. In the weeks before the tragedy, teachers from the adjoining schools reported that heavy chemical vapors were sickening their students. Local officials ignored the pleas. Finally, the all-volunteer fire department was not provided with the necessary information, equipment or training to deal with such a toxic disaster.
With new legal assistance and promise of a just hearing by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, Anaversa victims are motivated to organize. In May 2001, experts and activists from Mexico City and the U.S. joined victims and community leaders in Córdoba. Two days of informational presentations and testimonials led to renewed commitment by victims and supporters to work together to present a strong case to the Commission. If the case proceeds as expected, there will be hearings in Washington D.C. sometime in the fall.
Sources: John Ross, freelance journalist. Online newsletter, "Mexico Barbaro" (subscriptions: firstname.lastname@example.org), September 26, 1997 and April 20, 2001.
"El Mundo", May 6, 2001 p. 7A, and 5A. Córdoba, Veracruz, México.
Dr. Jorge Arturo de León, physcian from Mexico City who has been attending Anaversa victims since 1991. Researcher at the Mexico National University.