Corinne Purtill and Daniel Gonzalez, The Arizona Republic

A proposed hazardous-waste landfill 25 miles south of Arizona’s border with Mexico has outraged residents on both sides, who say the huge project threatens their health, environment and sacred lands. The privately owned landfill would span more than 200 acres on a site where water flows southwest toward the Gulf of California and the wind blows northeast toward Arizona.

The project has sailed through Mexico’s permitting process with little input from local residents and belated notice to the United States, in violation of an international agreement.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded in a report this month that the landfill poses no risk to the United States and that the agency will take no further action to dissuade Mexico from its plans.

But the EPA noted several times in its report that there is insufficient information to accurately assess all the risks.

That position has outraged activists from the Tohono O’odham Nation, an Indian community straddling the Arizona-Sonora border that holds an annual sacred ceremony less than 13 miles from the proposed landfill.

On Sunday, about 1,000 protesting residents of the city where the landfill is proposed blockaded the main road from Puerto Penasco, the popular tourist destination also known as Rocky Point. Arizona and Pima County officials say the landfill’s plans don’t ensure the safety of surrounding residents and natural resources.

The only thing blocking the landfill now is the opposition of the Mexican city of Sonoyta, which has refused to issue a permit out of concern for residents’ health and safety. And until the proposed site is changed, activists say they’ll keep fighting.

“We want a dialogue. We want answers. We want the truth,” said Dr. David Mota Cienfuegos, an orthodontist and lifelong Sonoyta resident.

Need for waste disposal

Both sides of the border have acknowledged for years the need for another hazardous-waste disposal facility in Mexico.

International law requires U.S. companies that operate in Mexico to truck their hazardous waste back across the border for disposal here.

Mexican-owned companies can dispose of hazardous waste in either the country’s facility in Monterrey or take it to one of the United States’ 47 hazardous-waste facilities.

There are no hazardous-waste landfills in Arizona. A hazardous-waste incinerator proposed near Mobile in 1990 was halted by major community protests.

In 1999, Mexico and the United States signed an agreement requiring both countries to inform the other within 30 days of becoming aware of any hazardous-waste facility proposed within 62 miles of the border.

But Mexico’s secretary for the environment and natural resources didn’t inform the EPA, its U.S. counterpart, about the proposed landfill until September 2005, long past the 30-day deadline.

The plans submitted by SEMARNAT (the Spanish acronym for the Mexican environmental agency) call for a 247-acre landfill designed to hold 3.38 million cubic meters of hazardous waste, the equivalent of 16 million 55-gallon drums.

It’s unclear what hazardous waste the landfill will accept.

The EPA notes what it won’t take in, things like radioactive materials, explosives and infectious biological waste. It could, however, accept corrosives, cyanide and solvents as many of the U.S. hazardous-waste sites do.

Community opposition

The proposed site is 12.9 miles from Quitovac, a tiny, impoverished community in Mexico. Its residents are members of the Tohono O’odham Nation, which considers certain communities extending up to 90 miles into Mexico as part of their country.

Quitovac houses a boarding school for O’odham children ages 6 to 16, tribal member Ofelia Rivas said. It is also the site of an annual sacred ceremony.

This spring, Rivas formed the O’odham Rights Group, which vigorously lobbied SEMARNAT and the EPA to relocate the landfill.

The tribe’s Legislative Council passed a resolution in June opposing the project.

Similar opposition started brewing in Sonoyta, a city of about 15,000 people 30 miles from the proposed landfill.

Residents started organizing in May after priests Santiago Robles and David Hurtado of the Sacred Family Catholic Church told parishioners about the project during Mass.

Residents fear toxic chemicals from the landfill could leech into rivers and underground aquifers that drain into the Gulf of California near Rocky Point, harming the area’s fishing and tourism industries, Mota Cienfuegos said.

They also worry it could pollute the nearby 600-square-mile Sierre del Pinacate Reserve national park.

And they accuse the Mexican government of approving the project without properly notifying them.

“All this was done in silence,” Mota Cienfuegos said. “If the people of Sonoyta don’t want it, they have to respect our right to reject it.”

Assessment of impacts

The EPA did its own assessment of the landfill’s impacts on the U.S. after the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and the Tohono O’odhams expressed concerns about SEMARNAT’s data on the project.

The EPA released its final assessment Nov. 9. The report looked only at potential effects on the U.S., not surrounding communities in Mexico.

It concluded that U.S. surface and groundwater would likely not be affected by the plant. Air contamination could be possible in a worst-case scenario such as an explosion, the report said.

However, David Jones, associate director of the waste-management division for the EPA’s Pacific Southwest Region, said he is “confident” that the contaminants could not travel all the way to the Arizona border.

He also expressed doubt that contaminants in water could reach the Gulf of California.

As far as the O’odhams’ concerns, the EPA suggested only that SEMARNAT “directly consult” the tribe to address its concerns.

Because the facility doesn’t directly affect the U.S., the EPA won’t interfere with Mexico’s plans to build it, Jones said.

“(If) the impact is unlikely … what’s my authority for making what I would consider gratuitous comments?” Jones said.

That position has outraged activists, who say the EPA is ignoring its responsibility to protect American tribes.

“It is a pattern of … the lack of recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples, whether it’s in Mexico or the United States,” said Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network. “We tend to be at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to our protection of our environment and our health.”

Residents on edge

Sonoyta residents fear a new municipal president and five new council members elected Sept. 16 could allow the landfill.

Raul Contreras, the new municipal president of Sonoyta, could not be reached Tuesday. But Ernesto Castro Hernandez, director of planning for municipal development in Sonoyta, said the company that owns the project has not reapplied for a land-use permit.

Little is known about the private company, Centro de Gestion Integral de Residuos, or CEGIR.

It is based in Hermosillo, Sonora, according to Arizona Department of Environmental Quality documents.

Mota Cienfuegos said residents are still on edge. They are considering a peaceful march in Rocky Point later this month to keep pressure on the government not to build the landfill near Sonoyta.

The blockades have “been very effective,” said Ofelia Rivas of the O’odham group. “All these people, tourists, go and play in the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California). … These people should be concerned.”

Fast facts

* The proposed landfill is a private venture owned by Centro de Gestion Integral de Residuos, S.A. de C.V., of Hermosillo, Sonora.

* It would be located on 247 acres about 25 miles south of the U.S.-Mexican border.

* It would be located in the municipality of Sonoyta, which so far has refused to issue a permit.

* The site is 35.8 miles from Lukeville and 92.3 miles from Tucson.

* It is designed to accept 45,000 metric tons a year of hazardous waste for 50 years.

* The facility will accept mostly hazardous wastes from companies in Sonora. It is prohibited from accepting certain materials, including radioactive material, explosives, toxic chemicals and infectious biological waste.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Reach the reporter at or (602) 444-4834.