The Environmental Court of San Salvador ruled yesterday that the sugar mill Ingenio La Magdalena be held responsible for environmental damages resulting from the massive molasses spill that took place on May 5, 2016.
During the spill thousands of gallons of molasses, a byproduct of sugarcane processing, entered local waterways in the municipality of Chalchuapa, Santa Ana, contaminating the water, depleting oxygen levels, and suffocating aquatic life for many miles downstream.
According to the chief prosecutor, the court ordered the mill to pay $1,581,000 in fines to restore the spill site, a process that is expected to take three years. In addition, the mill was ordered to pay $13,446 to cover government expenses incurred at the time of the spill.
Evidence presented in the case determined that over 450 families that rely on the river for their drinking water and livelihoods and approximately 29 species of animals, including several commercially important fisheries species, were affected by the molasses spill. According to Minister of Environment Lina Pohl, the spill caused a 100% mortality rate for species in the 12 km directly downstream from the mill, including an endangered local fish species, the tropical gar.
While a step in the right direction towards holding those responsible for environmental disasters accountable, the damage to the environment well exceeds the fines levied and there is little assurance that the government has the ability to prevent something like this from happening again. A report by the Ministry of the Environment found that the cost of cleanup efforts and restoring the affected region to its original state prior to the spill total over $4.9 million. This amount includes compensation to the communities for lost income as well as preventative measures necessary to ensure a spill of this nature doesn’t occur in the future.
As of yet, El Salvador has not passed legislation that guarantees the population’s right to clean water. A civil society coalition proposed a General Water Law over ten years ago that has remained stagnant in the legislature, with lawmakers unable to resolve the ideological and economic conflict presented by a law that treats water as an inalienable human right and not an exploitable private commodity. This ruling underscores the need for a comprehensive, meaningful, and enforceable water law that ensures access to a clean and safe environment for all citizens, one that has the teeth needed to enforce regulations and hold corporate interests accountable for the damage their actions have on communities and ecosystems.