NEWPORT - An Oregon State University whale expert is taking part in an unprecedented effort by the Mexican government to obtain international environmental review for a massive saltworks proposed for development on the Pacific coast of Baja California.
Bruce Mate, a marine mammal specialist with Oregon Sea Grant at OSU's Hatfield Marine Science Center, is part of an international review team attempting to pinpoint potential environmental problems that could result from construction and operation of the proposed San Ignacio Lagoon saltworks.
This is the first time the Mexican government has enlisted international help to assess a major development's potential for damaging the environment.
The review was prompted in part by concerns expressed by activists, scientists and environmental organizations inside and outside of Mexico to plans by Exportadora de Sal (a company partly owned by the Mexican government) to extract salt from the lagoon's sea water.
The company already runs the world's largest solar evaporation salt plant in nearby Laguna Ojo de Libre. In 1994, the company proposed developing a salt production facility on the natural salt flats near San Ignacio Lagoon that would extract more than seven million metric tons of salt from the sea water annually, and transport the product from an on-site shipping facility.
The lagoon lies within a "biosphere reserve," established by Mexico to protect ecologically fragile areas. Besides serving as a sanctuary for gray whales, which migrate there to bear their young each winter, the lagoon houses the largest breeding population of ospreys on the Pacific Coast. Endangered antelope also inhabit the area.
Concerns emerged that the development could produce waste materials with salinity levels toxic to marine plants and animals, that its shipping facilities could be vulnerable to hurricane-force storms that regularly hit the area, and that the 200-300 jobs expected to be created would not make up for the displacement of the area's commercial fishers and subsistence farmers.
In the wake of controversy over the project, the Mexican government last year invited seven internationally prominent scientists - two of them Mexican, five from abroad - to review the project and identify environmental concerns that should be addressed before construction might be approved.
Mate was invited onto the team because of his experience, dating back to the late 1970s, in studying the gray whales which winter in the lagoon.
Other team members included experts from the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, the University of Sevilla in Spain and the University of Chile.
Working together since early this year, the scientific team visited the site, heard testimony and ultimately developed a series of discussions and questions, called the "Term of Reference," which the developer will have to address when preparing its environmental assessment for the project.
Once the company has indicated how it will address the issues raised by the scientists, the team will reconvene to determine whether that proposal is adequate to meet environmental concerns.
Significant to the process, Mate said, is the fact that the Mexican government agreed to the scientific team's requirement that its report, the company's response and the team's followup report be made public, complete and unedited, in both Spanish and English.
"This is really unprecedented," Mate said recently. ""It's the first time where science has been given a commanding - and public - role in evaluating a major development in a biologically sensitive area of Mexico. I think our group has already made an enormous impact on making future development policy more open to the public and the country."
Mate expects it will be a year or more before the developer issues its response to the scientific team's report and the group reconvenes to consider that response.