Courtesy Kari Lydersen
The Cananea Consolidated Copper Company – one of the world’s largest open pit copper mines, run by Grupo Mexico – forms a beautifully surreal landscape. Carefully sculpted red and gold curves of earth hug pools of brilliant turquoise. Before the vast expanse of the mine flies a huge Mexican flag, a symbol of pride in the mine’s significant contribution to the country’s economy.
Cananea is often referred to as the cradle of the Mexican Revolution, in reference to a workers’ uprising there in 1906. It has been a hotbed of militant labor activism ever since; the powerful miners’ union has been on strike since July 2007.
Among locals, the mine’s reputation as a source of social injustices – including the displacement of residents, the exploitation and endangerment of miners, and political repression – is well known. The overuse and contamination of water in the copper extraction is another destructive, though perhaps less obvious, effect of the mine.
Copper mining and refining is a water-intensive process, and the mine draws liberally from the nearby Sonora and San Pedro aquifers and rivers, using at least 18 million cubic meters of water per year. Because of the mine, the San Pedro aquifer’s depletion has exceeded its recharge annually since 1984, according to Anne Browning-Aiken of the Udall Center in Arizona. The aquifer is reaching critically low levels and, as a result, the Sonora River’s flow has been greatly reduced, a situation particularly disturbing for the downstream city of Hermosillo, which depends on the river for its very existence. Farmers in the arid region, who rely on irrigation to grow their crops, are now competing with the mine for water.
The rampant waste of freshwater for general public use – lawn watering, the creation of suburban fake lakes, excessive bathing and household washing – has been well documented, as has the politically charged use of water in US agriculture. But the use and abuse of water in various parts of the global industrial economy is often overlooked. From the mining of raw materials for manufacturing to energy production, to the manufacturing process itself, the US industrial economy uses a significant amount of water every year.
Exact numbers for the amount of water used outside of agriculture or home consumption are difficult to come by. The US Geological Survey (USGS) estimates that industry uses about five percent of all the water in the US, but does not include mining or electricity generation in that figure. A report from Dow Chemical puts the figure much higher, at around 20 percent. And perhaps more importantly, neither number takes into account the volume of water pollution that occurs in the course of industrial processes.
At the very least, it’s clear that every year, billions of gallons of water are used – not to grow food or to meet physical human needs – but to quench our society’s thirst for the modern conveniences and technological devices we have come to rely on.
Farmers in the Mexican state of Sonora are competing with local mines for water. Around the world, billions of gallons of water are used to create the technological conveniences we depend on.
One place to see the consequences of industry’s thirst is in Ciudad Juarez, a major maquiladora (factory) zone located just south of El Paso, TX, where workers labor around the clock to produce goods and components for export around the world. The maquila industry exploded after implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, and though it has since leveled off, factories in Mexican border towns like Juarez, Tijuana, and Reynosa still churn out products and parts (mostly for US citizens) that suck up or pollute much of the local water supply in the process.
Juarez is in the middle of a desert, so dry that little vegetation grows and spring winds sweep currents of stinging dust across shantytowns and scrubby fields. The once-proud Rio Bravo/Rio Grande, which flows through Juarez and forms part of the US-Mexico border, has been reduced to a slow, polluted stream. The Hueco Bolson aquifer, which supplies Juarez and El Paso, is at imminent risk of being pumped dry, according to local experts, and already over-pumping has led to the incursion of brackish groundwater that contaminates the fresh supply. The Hueco Bolson is sucked up by both the maquilas themselves and the households of the city, which mushroomed from a small border town to a sprawling, chaotic metropolis of three million people as workers streamed north for jobs. Public infrastructure was not built to accommodate the massive population influx, leading to the ad hoc development of informal sewage and wastewater disposal – and massive water contamination.
Despite the obvious lack of water, plans are in the works to create a new industrial zone in the parched section of Juarez known as Lomas de Poleo.
For the past few years, residents of this area have been terrorized by private security guards hired by the Zaragoza brothers, who own large local beer distributorships and dairies, and plan to develop additional factories. Most of the Lomas de Poleo residents came from southern and central Mexico to eke out an existence of subsistence farming, raising a few animals and plants on the dry, dusty land, and they refuse to leave their fields. Zaragoza strongmen have put a barbed wire fence around the brothers’ development and burned down several nearby houses; at least one man has been killed and several injured in clashes with the guards. Ironically, as part of their push to displace the 30-some families who remain, the Zaragozas have shut off water to the area and often won’t let trucks carrying bottled water in to make their deliveries.
“Now we have no water in the pipes,” says Salvador Aguero, 56, who has lived in Lomas de Poleo with his elderly mother and family for 26 years. “The rich are robbing our lands. They always make their money taking resources from the poor.”
Similar problems involving access to clean water often occur in the Tijuana region. In 2003, I visited the Colonia Chilpancingo shantytown in Tijuana where many maquila workers live. There I met Lourdes Lujan, who showed me a small stream filled with trash and glistening with oily residue. When she was a child, the stream was a fresh, rushing torrent that they would play in. Now it is barely moving and filthy. “The water was clear; it was beautiful. Now, look …” she said, shaking her head. “Kids shouldn’t go near it.”
A 1999 report by the Southern California Ecosystems Research Project blamed the lack of infrastructure in Tijuana and the maquila industry for destroying regional water supplies. “Surface and groundwater supplies are threatened along the US-Mexico border due to the dumping of raw sewage, agricultural runoff, and industrial and hazardous waste pollution,” the report says. “All streams and rivers in the border region have suffered deterioration of water quality due to the lack of adequate municipal wastewater collection and treatment systems.”
Nothing gets manufactured without electricity – and manufacturing electricity often requires water. Power generation is the thirstiest sector of the industrial economy, slurping up 195 billion gallons per day, according to the USGS. While about a third of this is saline (either ocean water or brackish groundwater), the rest is freshwater from lakes and rivers.
About 70 percent of US electricity comes from coal and nuclear plants, each of which produce power by heating water to make steam, which spins a turbine. Typical coal-burning or nuclear power plants have “open” or “closed” cooling systems. Closed systems reuse the same water multiple times and therefore require much less water. An open system runs water just once through the plant and then returns it to the source. In plants that use “once-through” water systems, the water is returned to the lake, ocean, or river it came from about 30 degrees warmer. This increase in water temperature can cause fish kills, algae blooms, or otherwise greatly alter the natural biological makeup of the water body. Meanwhile, the intake pipes for such open cooling systems can be lethal for fish and aquatic microorganisms; electricity plants must sometimes be shut down when the pipes are clogged by fish, debris, or ice.
Nuclear energy is an especially water-intensive technology. A 1,400-megawatt nuclear reactor requires enough water to fill 5,000 Olympic swimming pools per year, according to a 2006 Australian study. The study, commissioned by the Queensland government, warns that the country’s severe drought could be exacerbated by building more nuclear power plants, which use about 25 percent more water than coal plants. The Union of Concerned Scientists calls nuclear power plants’ need for water “insatiable.”
The mining of the coal and uranium needed to feed these electricity stations is also highly destructive to local water sources.
Until it was shut down by a lawsuit in 2005, the infamous Peabody Western Coal Company used precious groundwater from the dry Navajo and Hopi Nations to mix with pulverized coal and piped the slurry all the way from its Black Mesa mine in Arizona 275 miles to the Mohave Generating Station in Nevada.
In Appalachia, many residents are no longer able to drink from their wells because blasting for coal has fractured their water tables and left their wells dangerously contaminated.
In 2003, Maria Gunnoe, a West Virginia mother who gained national attention for her activism against coal strip-mining, found her well contaminated from runoff from two nearby containing ponds storing waste from coal processing – waste that included selenium, lime, arsenic, and other toxins.
“I had a 55-gallon fish tank, and I changed the water and this albino catfish I had had for eight years died instantly,” she said. “The water was all green. This happened overnight. When I turned on the shower, the smell was so awful I couldn’t take it. My kids and I all got skin reactions.”
Gunnoe started buying bottled water for all their household needs, to the tune of $250 a month. To add insult to injury, the road to her house was so damaged from blasting at the mine that she had to walk long distances to carry the heavy store-bought water home.
And once-lovely Appalachian river valleys have been “in-filled” with waste from mountaintop removal mining. That is, the rivers essentially have been filled up with jumbled earth and ore sliced off to get at the lucrative coal seams. Regional activists have been fighting a loophole in the Clean Water Act that currently allows this destruction to occur.
Uranium mining poses similar environmental risks. Record-high prices for uranium in the past year mean that companies are hoping once again to mine uranium in the American Southwest, home to a thriving uranium industry from the 1940s to the 1980s. Much of the mining was done on or near Navajo land, and many of the miners were Navajos. The government is still processing compensation claims for miners suffering from lung cancer and other diseases caused by uranium exposure. Navajo Larry King remembers seeing his cows’ coats turn yellowish and their hooves brittle, and even seeing them keel over and die after drinking from uranium-contaminated wells on his land.
“Before, even people drank water from the windmill,” says King, referring to the well that is pumped by wind power. “We bathed in it and everything. Then they told us it wasn’t good for humans, so we had to start hauling water from Gallup. But some families still let their livestock drink there. They’re drinking uranium.”
King remembers the day in 1979 when the Rio Puerco River, which runs by his land, was inundated with 90 million gallons of radioactive uranium-laden liquid from a waste pond after a barricade burst.
“Cattle drank from the wash, and they just started dropping dead for a few years,” he says. “Even now I find bones there.”
This time around, companies want to use a method called “in situ recovery.” Instead of hauling the uranium-laced ore out of the ground, they would inject water into uranium-laced aquifers, mobilizing the uranium so it can be pumped out along with the water. Companies aiming to use this process say they will use reverse osmosis to clean the water to its original baseline condition. But critics are doubtful. Eric Jantz, a lawyer challenging the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s decision to allow in situ mining in New Mexico’s Navajo country, says there is a “100 percent chance” the aquifer will be radioactively contaminated from in situ mining.
Like coal and uranium mining, oil extraction can also require vast amounts of water. With the current oil crunch, companies are taking extreme measures to squeeze every last drop of oil from sources that previously would have been considered unprofitable or inefficient. In older oil fields, water is often injected into the wells to help pry the last sticky remnants out of the ground.
One of the most water-intensive petroleum extraction methods occurs in the gooey tar sands of Alberta, where it takes three to six barrels of water to harvest each barrel of oil, a process that sucks Canadian rivers and aquifers dry. Low river levels have already been attributed to tar sand excavation, and the industry is only in its nascent stages. As the Canadian organization Global Research put it in a December 2007 article: “While Canada has more water than any other country – it is the Saudi Arabia of water – polluting the planet’s largest supply of freshwater for a short-term burst of energy production is one of the most insane behaviors imaginable.”
Most manufacturing processes use some amount of water. While the USGS doesn’t quantify exact water use by industry, USGS hydrologist Molly Maupin says, “We know that petroleum refineries and paper and pulp mills, as well as steel manufacturing facilities, are known to use an awful lot of water.”
But even more significant, in many cases, is the effect on underground aquifers, lakes, or rivers that aren’t directly used in the manufacturing. Effluent and wastewater discharged from industries and mining operations – or leaking from inadequate waste and industrial storage facilities – can contaminate large amounts of groundwater or surface water. The examples are countless. And in the cases where groundwater-based municipal systems and private wells or bodies of water tapped for drinking water are affected, the health ramifications can be severe. Cancers, birth defects, low birth weights, neurological effects, and other serious health problems have long been attributed to relatively small amounts of toxins in drinking water, not to mention water-based toxins moving through the food chain, as in the neurotoxin mercury concentrated in fish. These cases often involve some kind of environmental injustice, as industry and its environmental effects concentrate in poor and minority communities.
One example of water-related environmental racism is the largely African-American town of Tallevast, FL, where residents suffer extraordinarily high rates of cancer. Residents and advocates believe the disease is linked to a Lockheed Martin beryllium plant that apparently contaminated the drinking water supply with chemicals, including trichloroethylene (TCE), found at 10,000 times beyond acceptable state drinking water standards.
‘’I feel cheated,’’ resident Laura Ward told the Miami Herald. “The treatment we have gotten in this community is deplorable.” Ward was one of the first residents to learn of the contamination, and only after she saw an oil rig drilling a nearby monitoring well; she and other residents weren’t notified of the risk until well into the testing process.
Although the lack of a smokestack could give the impression that high-tech companies are “green,” computers, cell phones, MP3 players, and other gadgets are a significant source of water use and pollution in the US and abroad.
In 1981, waste from IBM and Fairchild Semiconductor’s tech operations in California’s Silicon Valley were found to be leaking TCE and freon from storage tanks into the groundwater used for drinking water. The area was eventually included in a Superfund site, and the contaminants were blamed by many as the cause of disproportionate numbers of birth defects. The discovery of the IBM-Fairchild leakage in the early 1980s led to a closer examination of high-tech waste, and the eventual expenditure of over $200 million by tech companies to clean up messes that were affecting local groundwater.
Surprisingly, the US county with the most sites listed on the Superfund National Priorities List is not in the post-industrial Midwest or under-regulated South, but in the Silicon Valley. Santa Clara County had 23 listed sites as of 2004; 19 of those were linked to high-tech companies, including Hewlett Packard and Intel.
The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition notes that water contamination and use for the tech industry is much worse in developing nations, where there is little regulation or environmental oversight. The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), a Washington-based think tank, projects that by 2025, “Industrial water demand will increase significantly in developing countries and…a major shift will occur: Industrial water demand in the developing world will exceed the demand in developed countries.” This, along with increasing agricultural and household demand, will vastly accelerate the already burgeoning crisis in food prices, the Institute predicts.
IFPRI Senior Scientist Tingju Zhu says developing countries usually use much more water to create the same amount of gross domestic product as developed countries; in other words, their water use is more intensive and less efficient.
As globalization brings increased consumer wealth to India, China, and other developing countries, the hunger for manufactured goods likely will keep growing. But just as many citizens of these countries are for the first time able to enjoy some of the material benefits US citizens have long taken for granted, they will also bear the brunt of the environmental and health effects of the production of these goods, including the depletion of freshwater sources and water contamination.
“As part of globalization, the transfer of resource-intensive manufacturing industry from the developed world to developing countries such as China and southeast Asian countries did cause dramatic water use increase in industrial sectors,” Zhu says. “It is quite possible that there can be water shortages for agricultural and domestic users in arid and semi-arid regions or in dry years in developing countries, as a result of increased industrial water demand.”
Kari Lydersen is a staff writer at The Washington Post out of the Midwest bureau, and freelances for various publications. She is author of Out of the Sea and Into the Fire: Latin American-US Immigration in the Global Age (Common Courage Press, 2005) and co-author of Shoot an Iraqi: Life, Art and Resistance Under the Gun (City Lights, 2008). www.karilydersen.com.
We are standing at a pivotal moment in history, one in which education and advocacy around the climate emergency, public health, racial injustice, and economic inequity is imperative. At Earth Island Journal, we have doubled down on our commitment to uplifting stories that often go unheard, to centering the voices of frontline communities, and to always speak truth to power. We are nonprofit publication. We don’t have a paywall because our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.Donate
For $20 you can get four issues of the magazine, a 50 percent savings off the newsstand rate.