Environment

Another Molasses Spill in El Salvador

El Salvador has had another molasses spill. This time as much as 2.5 million gallons has poured into the Cañas River. The spill occurred at the Salvadoran Distillery located at km 15.5 on the Troncal del Norte highway in Apopa, north of San Salvador. In the past, the Cabaña and Jiboa Sugarcane Mills leased the facility to make alcohol, though it is unclear if either facility was involved in this incident.

A representative of the Sugarcane Association reported the spill to authorities yesterday morning (Wednesday, June 1) at 11:30, claiming it had occurred just a couple hours earlier. Residents, however, report that there was a strange smell in the air and molasses in the river as early as Sunday. Mauricio Quinteros, the Director of Operations for the Sugarcane Association, told the Ministry of the Environment (MARN) that the molasses had been in the facility about a month and that the cause of the spill remains unknown.

The storage facility at the Distillery is close to the Cañas River. When the molasses leaked it ran straight into the river. Footage of the spill shows steaming hot molasses pouring out of an old, single story industrial building, and running towards the Cañas, while photos on the MARN website show the thick, black molasses actually entering the river.

One report from the  MARN says that even though the Apopa spill is larger, the damage is not as serious as the La Magdelena spill in May because the Cañas River is already so polluted that nothing can live in it – it’s a dead river. The Magdalena River was clean in comparison.

The Apopa spill comes less than a month after the Magdalena Mill in Santa Ana spilled more than 900,000 gallons of molasses into the Magdalena River. Following that spill, the El Salvador’s Environmental Court ordered the Ministry of the environment to inspect all the mills to determine what measures they have in place to prevent future disasters.

The Apopa facility, however, was unregistered and did not have an environmental permit, so the Ministry of the Environment did not know it was being used for storing molasses. The Minister of the Environment Lina Pohl said, “this is an illegal storage facility. We in the Ministry did not have any idea that it existed. This distillery is not open and has not been in operation since 2006. None of the of the mills (Jiboa and Las Cabaña) that leased the place have applied for a permit to use the facility to store molasses.”

So far there is little information about who is responsible for the spill or whether they will be held responsible for the disaster. Minister Pohl said that the MARN’s job is to collect information and evidence, and that it is the Attorney General’s responsibility to file charges when crimes are committed.

Last week Voices on the Border released a report on large-scale sugarcane production in El Salvador. The report details the affects that tilling, application of agrochemicals, burning of fields, and use of ground water for irrigation has on the environment and nearby communities. Though the report does not discuss contamination of rivers and communities with molasses, it is proving to be a serious issue as well – one the MARN and other law enforcement agencies should be regulating more carefully. Unfortunately, government agencies seem to lack the will or authority necessary to protect El Salvador’s remaining natural resources. People and corporations have every reason to keep polluting, knowing that at least for now they enjoy almost complete impunity.

The communities that depend on the Magdalena River report that life is back to normal for them – less than a month after the spill. They say the water is crystal clean and they are able to use it again for washing clothes, bathing, and other domestic purposes. The Magdalena Sugar mill says it spent $200,000 in labor to clean up the mess, and that they will soon repopulate the river with fish and plant trees in the areas affected by the spill. The Attorney General’s Office reported in May that they have opened an investigation to determine whether the Magdalena Mill will face criminal charges. We’ll see…

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During these molasses spills, the Minister of the Environment and other government officials have been quick to voice their outrage, giving dramatic interviews in front of rivers of steaming molasses. These spills are outrageous and their response is justified, but it seems somewhat disingenuous in a country where 90% of rivers and lakes are polluted, and spills like this are a fact of life.Factories, municipalities, and others regularly dump untreated industrial waste and sewage into rivers without attracting the kind of attention these spills are getting.

And other aspects of large-scale sugarcane production are arguably worse than the occasional molasses spill. Burning sugarcane fields, which is a violation of the Salvadoran Penal Code (large-scale sugarcane production should not fall into the strictly cultural exception), should also generate outrage because it destroys land and makes people sick. Using crop dusters to spray deadly agrochemicals on sugarcane should also generate outrage because most of it drifts and settles on nearby homes, schools, soccer fields, and farms, also making people sick. Destructive tilling practices used in sugarcane production are also outrageous and arguably a violation of the Law on the Environment. The unregulated use of El Salvador’s remaining groundwater to irrigate sugarcane fields during the dry season is also worthy of outrage, especially because parts of El Salvador are experiencing a water crisis – a situation that will only get worse.

The Magdalena and Apopa molasses spills are just another outrageous aspect of a destructive industry and the government’s inability or unwillingness to enforce its environmental laws. Maybe these spills and the attention they are getting will force people and government officials to start doing something… or maybe the attention will go away after a couple news cycles.

Environment, Uncategorized

MARN Weak in Wake of Molasses Spill

DSC_0723Last week the Magdalena Sugar Mill in Santa Ana spilled 900,00 gallons of hot molasses into the Magdalena River, causing an environmental disaster. The spill is a reminder of how impotent the Ministry of the Environment is in protecting El Salvador’s natural resources.

In August 2015, the Constitutional Court ruled that the Ministry of the Environment cannot to impose fines against persons or corporations that violate environmental laws. The Environmental Court can find someone guilty of polluting, engaging in harmful activities without an environmental permit, or any other violation, but they cannot impose a fine.

The problem is Article 89 of the Environmental Law. When the Environmental Court finds someone guilty of violating the law, Article 89 says the Ministry should impose fines based on the daily salary for urban workers in San Salvador. Day fines are a common tool in Latin American countries for measuring appropriate penalties. If a person or business cuts down a forest without permission, or spills molasses into a river, the court can (in theory) fine them the equivalent of 2-100 or 101-5,000 days salary depending on the severity of the crime. The dollar amount of the day salary is based on the minimum wage for urban workers in San Salvador. Unfortunately, the minimum wage decree does not have a category for urban workers in San Salvador, therefore the Constitutional Court said the Ministry cannot levee any fines.

Following the molasses spill, the Environmental court ordered the Magdalena Mill to issue a public apology by taking an ad out in El Salvador’s two largest newspapers. They also have to come up with a cleanup plan. But the Ministry cannot impose a fine or otherwise punish the Mill. Their only real loss is the revenue that selling 900,000 gallons of molasses would have brought in had they not spilled it. At $150/ton, that would be a $789,500 loss. That is definitely a hit to the Mill, but it is not punitive nor does it compensate locals or the State for the damage to an important common resource and the clean up. El Salvador is in water crisis and damage to a river like the Magdalena is more serious than ever, especially to the 450 families that depend on it for their survival.

In December 2015 and again this week Environmental Minister Lina Pohl asked the Legislative Assembly to fix Article 89 so the Ministry can levee fines. It seems like this would be an easy one – they just need to change a couple words so that fines are based on an actual minimum wage or some other measure.

Unfortunately, the Legislative Assembly has a bad record on doing the right thing when it comes to the environment, food, and water. The current arrangement is ideal for powerful business interests – there is an environmental law but no real consequences for ignoring it. They can skip environmental permitting processes and pollute with impunity. These businesses have a lot of influence over the Legislature and are likely to oppose any effort to change Article 89, just as they have opposed the General Law on Water proposed in 2005 and efforts to amend the Constitution to recognize food sovereignty and access to water as basic human rights.

Residents of the Bajo Lempa region of Usulután have seen the Ministry’s impotence in action (or inaction). In trying to stop sugarcane growers from planting crops near mangrove forests, community leaders asked Ministry officials to stop the project, arguing that the project did not have an environmental permit. The Ministry told the communities that they could only ask the growers to go through the permitting process but could not do anything to stop them.

The Ministry of the Environment is good at writing reports and declaring states of emergency, but their mandate is so much more than that. The Ministry is tasked with ensuring that Salvadorans enjoy their Constitutional right to a clean, healthy environment. The reports and states of emergency detail just how badly the Ministry has failed over the years.

This has to change if El Salvador is going to address the water crisis and other pending disasters. The Legislature must reform Article 89 to give the Ministry some teeth, but then the Ministry has to use those teeth to go after poluuters. Similarly, the Legislature has to pass the General Water Law as drafted by civil society organizations in 2005, and finally recognize that all Salvadorans have the right to food sovereignty and access to water.