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Mitsubishi vs. Reality

by Dr. Mark SpaldingCorpWatch
March 1st, 1998

Concerned citizens from around the world have sent petitions, postcards, and letters to Mistubishi to express opposition to its plans to build an industrial salt works next to Laguna San Ignacio, the last undisturbed nursery ground in Baja California, Mexico for the gray whale.

In response, Motohiki Numaguchi, President of the Mitsubishi International Corporation, has sent out a form letter which is dismissive of concerns about the project and its impacts on the whales and the rest of the extraordinarily fragile ecosystem.

The following is a response, prepared by Dr. Mark Spalding, a Research Fellow at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies of the University of California, San Diego. He may be contacted at


The project as proposed would utilize barren salt flats located inland and to the north and west of San Ignacio Lagoon. The flats are not frequented by any of the region's animal species and are devoid of plant life.


The permanent flooding of 116 square miles of coastal tidal flats may interfere with migratory paths of animals. The planned inundation and dike system may redirect natural tidal flooding to disturb areas which are the habitat for numerous marine and terrestrial plant and animal species. Ponds with highly concentrated salt and waste products also pose a significant risk of contamination of the lagoon and surrounding mangroves - a danger that does not currently exist.


The proposed San Ignacio project is specifically designed to protect the gray whale and the lagoon ecosystem as a whole.


Mitsubishi and its Mexican government partner in its joint venture called ESSA did not pay sufficient attention to the environmental impacts from the proposal salt works until they came under pressure from Mexican and U.S. environmentalists and Mexican environmental officials.

Mitsubishi's first environmental assessment submitted in 1994 did not even address the potential risks to the gray whale and asserted there would be little or no adverse effects on other species and natural systems.

In March 1995, the Mexican environmental authorities rejected the salt works project. The proposal was determined to be incompatible with the protected status of the area - which is both a World Heritage Site and part of the Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve - and an unacceptable risk to the reserve's natural values, including habitat for the endangered pronghorn antelope and more than 70 over animal species.

As proposed today, the project is still incompatible. But in June 1995, the Mexican environmental ministry relented and agreed to allow Mitsubishi to submit a new environmental assessment. This review will be subjected to a public process and to new terms of reference developed by an international scientific advisory committee.

In July 1997, Mitsubishi officials first revealed that they have made some design changes in the project - changes now mentioned in their form letter - to address the concerns raised by numerous environmental organizations and experts.

The salt loading pier would be built in an area of prime lobster and abalone fisheries.

The pier would be regularly visited by large salt transport vessels and by oil tankers. The pier and ship traffic will occur in the aptly named Bahia de las Ballenas (Whale Bay) through which the gray whales regularly pass while in the waters of the Baja Peninsula. This creates a risk of accidental spillage and collision which does not currently exist in this area.

Mitsubishi plans to move the 17 large diesel pumps further away from areas of the lagoon used by the whales, but the pumps will be a one-way path. Any life that passes through to the salt evaporation ponds will not be returned to the lagoon. And some of it will perish as the sea water moves to ponds with higher concentrations of salt.


ESSA's experience of over forty years at a similar facility just up the Baja coast indicates that the activities of an inland salt evaporation project are highly compatible with whales and other marine species. When ESSA first began exporting salt from Baja in 1957, fewer than 100 gray whales visited the lagoon near its facility. This year, more than 1,500 whales visited that lagoon - a record number.


We are aware of the steady increase in the counts of gray whales in the larger, deeper lagoon where Mitsubishi's existing salt works is located. This cannot be attributed to the presence of the salt works. It is due to the recovery of the gray whale over the last three decades since the end of their commercial slaughter. In the late 1950s, there were less that 1,000 gray whales left; today there are over 22,000. Japan and some other nations would like to overturn the current international ban on whaling.

Gray whales are sensitive to noise and human disturbance. From 1957 to 1967, grays were rarely observed using the smaller of the two lagoons near the existing salt works where the company had barge operations and had to dredge the mouth of the lagoon. While scientists agree that it is not possible to establish the bases for whale behavior, it is interesting to note that the gray whales in Laguna San Ignacio have been observed to be much more “friendly” to humans than those in the three other much more developed and less pristine Baja lagoons frequented each winter by the grays.

The environmental impacts of ESSA's existing salt works at Guerrero Negro have only been formally reviewed once in its 40 year history. According to ESSA's own admission, numerous violations were found during a government audit in 1995 and the salt works must comply with orders from Mexico's Attorney General for the Environment (PROFEPA) to correct those discrepancies. Aside from the direct impacts, the creation of the salt works there led to a swelling of Guerrero Negro's population from less than 100 forty years ago to some 10,000 today. In January 1998, the local fisherman complained that toxic releases from the salt works were responsible for the deaths of a hundred or more endangered sea turtles.


ESSA is commissioning an independent study of the proposed project involving some of the world's most prestigious scientists, and is making the results publicly available.


ESSA is required by Mexican law to prepare an environmental impact study of the proposed project and to make the results public. Like environmental reviews in the United States, the study is being prepared by contractors. The Mexican Environmental Ministry deserves credit for insisting that this study be subjected to an unprecedented review by the international scientific review committee before any final decision is made on the project.

The Bottom Line

We can be pleased that Mitsubishi has been forced to listen to your concerns. Our efforts have contributed to improvements in the project and a much higher level of environmental scrutiny, but the project would still

  • have a massive footprint -- almost twice the size of Washington, D.C.
  • disturb and degrade a unique and irreplaceable natural area that supposedly has the protection of the Mexican Government as part of the Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve and the recognition of the United Nations as a World Heritage Site, and
  • pose risks of direct and indirect harm to the whales, numerous other species, and related natural systems, including those associated with the expected influx over time of additional people and exploitative activities in a very fragile desert environment.