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NRDC-led Coalition Forces Mexico and Mitsubishi To Abandon San Ignacio Lagoon Salt Plant Project
Last Pristine Breeding Site for Gray Whales Spared
WASHINGTON (March 3, 2000) – An international coalition of environmentalists, fishermen, scientists and consumers won a major victory yesterday when the Mitsubishi Corporation and the Mexican government announced they are abandoning their joint plan to construct a massive salt plant at Laguna San Ignacio. The lagoon – the last undisturbed breeding place for the Pacific gray whale – is located on the west coast of Mexico's Baja California Sur.
"This is one of the most significant environmental decisions of our generation – not just for Mexico, but for the world," says Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, the U.S. environmental group that led the fight against the salt plant. "The San Ignacio Lagoon is a World Heritage site, a Mexican 'biosphere reserve,' a whale sanctuary and a migratory bird refuge. There are more than 300 animal species who live in the area. It would have been the worst place on the planet for industrial development."
"This victory represents a triumph of an empowered citizenry over one of the world's most powerful companies," adds NRDC Senior Attorney Jacob Scherr. "Through e-mails and newspaper ads, we were able to galvanize people all over the world. Mitsubishi received more than 700,000 postcards opposing the plant."
The Mexican government's announcement came as a surprise. Mitsubishi's Mexican joint venture company Exportadora de Sal, S.A. (ESSA) yesterday completed a $1-million, 3,000-page environmental impact study, which concluded that a 116-square mile industrial salt facility at Laguna San Ignacio would not harm the environment. Even so, the Mexican government and Mitsubishi, citing the concerns of "responsible environmental organizations, UNESCO and the public," agreed that the project was not compatible with the surrounding landscape.
In 1994, Mitsubishi submitted its first application to the Mexican Environment Ministry to build the Laguna San Ignacio salt plant. It was rejected by the Environment Ministry as "incompatible with the conservation objectives" of the El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve, which was created by the Mexican government in 1988 as the largest protected natural area in Latin America. In 1994, the reserve was declared a United Nations World Heritage Site. The $100-million facility would have been the largest salt plant in the world, covering 62,000 acres of the reserve – about three times the size of the District of Columbia.
The Coalition to Save Laguna San Ignacio, comprised of 50 environmental groups in Mexico and the United States, has been working for five years to stop the project. Last summer, the coalition's efforts were bolstered by the endorsement of 34 world-renowned scientists, including nine Nobel laureates, urging Mitsubishi to abandon its plan and concluding that the salt plant would pose "an unacceptable risk" to wildlife and the environment. The scientists include leading whale researcher Roger Payne, James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, Jared Diamond, Arturo Gomez Pompa, Rene Drucker-Colin and E.O. Wilson.
Residents of the fishing communities on San Ignacio Lagoon opposed the saltworks and welcomed international help to block Mitsubishi's plans. "Mitsubishi's saltworks would have severely threaten our fisheries and polluted our waters," says Antonio Zuniga Valenzuela, representative of the community of Punta Abreojos. Although Mitsubishi has justified the saltworks proposal as a source of jobs in the San Ignacio region, a recent study by the World Wildlife Fund found that the saltworks would be the worst economic option for the region. The study also concluded that the saltworks would have a devastating effect on the region's fragile ecosystem.
"This debate was not about science," says Alberto Székely, a Mexican lawyer leading the Coalition to Save Laguna San Ignacio. "It was about the integrity of the Mexican legal system." In 1995, the Environmental Ministry concluded that "there are no valid reasons which justify the loss of the natural environment in such an extensive area and within a biosphere reserve." According to Székely, "the Environmental Ministry made the right decision in 1995 and thankfully made the same decision today: It completely rejected the saltworks proposal."
NRDC's Reynolds, Scherr and another NRDC attorney, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., today flew to Laguna San Ignacio to celebrate with the community and begin discussions on ways to ensure sustainable development in the region now that the threat of the Mitsubishi salt plant is gone.
The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, nonprofit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 400,000 members nationwide, served by offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco. More information on NRDC is available at its Web site, www.nrdc.org.
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