Crying Whale

Environmental groups sent out a worldwide call to save the gray whale from a Mexican salt plant. They got millions of dollars and thousands of new members. But scientists found no threat to the whales.

It's the assault upon the eyes that sullies their reputation, even as the salt plants play a role in the planet's health.

The world's evaporation salt facilities, including one in San Francisco Bay, pull seawater into massive, diked evaporation ponds to dry. Saltworks are ugly and unworldly places, filled with vast pools of drifting beige wads of foam, and blocks and blocks of crunchy, snowlike crystals.

Despite their looks, they create a major seabird habitat rich in brine shrimp and other tiny edibles. In the Bay Area, environmentalists are unhappy their unattractive saltworks may close, since its loss will hurt the seabird ecosystem.

Actor Pierce Brosnan stands on a mobile billboard promoting the International Fund for Animal Welfare campaign.
courtsey of IFAW/S. Cook
Actor Pierce Brosnan stands on a mobile billboard promoting the International Fund for Animal Welfare campaign.
NRDC consultant Mark Spalding.
Don Lewis
NRDC consultant Mark Spalding.


In this issue, four New Times writers examine the truth behind a controversial proposed salt plant near the calving lagoons of Baja and how a misguided campaign to save the whales benefited two of the world's largest environmental groups. While government and academic whale researchers struggled to raise the few hundred thousand dollars needed to investigate central problems with the grays' Arctic food supply, green groups raised and spent $15 million to fight the salt plant, even though a panel of leading whale experts found the plant would not harm the whales.

The recovery of the Eastern Pacific gray whale from the brink of extinction is the single greatest turnaround of a marine mammal population, and the whale's myriad connections to human cultural conflicts are no less impressive in their scope.

In New Times' special project "Shades of Gray," reporters from several of our papers have traveled from Siberia to Mexico to tell the complex tale of a creature whose annual migration -- at 12,000 miles round trip -- is the longest by any mammal.

Related stories:
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The Unlikely Environmentalists

Read the entire series

The existing saltworks in Baja is equally important.

The Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network has designated the Guerrero Negro saltworks owned by ESSA as a site of "international importance" because nearly 200,000 migratory birds annually utilize its salt ponds as a sanctuary.

"ESSA has had a very important role in the conservation efforts in this area for many years," said Victor Sánchez Sotomayor, director of the El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve, in a statement distributed by the salt plant. "The company has been very cooperative in its studies of land, whales and in particular birds, sponsoring works, and building structures to protect falcon and peregrine nests."

The Brilliant Campaign

If you destroy a home, they call it vandalism. Terrorize a neighborhood and you're a menace. Threaten a life and it's assault. Unless the victims are whales. Then it's just business. Laguna San Ignacio is the last pristine birthing site for the gray whale. . . . The last one.

-- public service announcement widely heard in the U.S., 1998

The very friendly lawyer Joel Reynolds was pretty clear, in his meeting with the very affable lawyer Jim Brumm. NRDC was not going to let anybody build a giant salt facility in the buffer zone of a nationally protected biosphere on the shores of a lagoon filled each winter with baby whales.

"I told him I didn't care what any studies showed, we were going to oppose it to the end," Reynolds recalls.

Brumm, a vice president of Mitsubishi International who was making a new habit of flying to Baja from New York to deal with salt plant troubles, thought Reynolds was bluffing: Mitsubishi was willing to live with any decision the Mexican government made once an extensive environmental impact assessment was complete. Why wouldn't Reynolds?

From the beginning, back in 1995, the salt plant crowd thought the fight should be about science. But the environmental crowd thought the fight should be about ideas.

Brumm conceded that if the research showed any danger to the whales, the plant should be scuttled. But Exportadora del Sal, the joint Mexico-Mitsubishi company that owned the salt plant up north at Guerrero Negro, said if a safe plant could be designed for the El Vizcaino Desert at Laguna San Ignacio, it should be allowed.

Environmentalists said it shouldn't be done at all. Aesthetically, politically and ecologically, it was a bad way to go.

That's when the environmental crowd's brilliant backroom strategy began to jell. The environmentalists would encourage ESSA to fight out an exhausting battle on the science side, by baiting the company with charges of ecological wrongdoing and demanding scientific studies, while they launched a punishing campaign on the political side.

"It was just very important, from an international law and policy viewpoint, that we succeed and prevent such a precedent," says Reynolds. "We were happy to watch Mitsubishi spend $2 million on environmental studies while we made sure the project never happened."

NRDC was one-third of the troika that launched the salt plant battle, after being alerted by Homero Aridjis, respected co-founder of Mexico's Group of 100, a committee fighting, among other things, for cleaner air in Mexico City. Aridjis and his wife Betty had reached out to NRDC. Reynolds in turn brought in IFAW, with its international influence and $60 million budget.

Together, the groups stopped the first proposal for the plant in 1995, which lacked serious environmental mitigation and was rejected by the Mexican government.

The second battle, however, promised to be a doozie. Mitsubishi was not backing down, and it was suddenly agreeing to all manner of tough environmental requirements not even the U.S. laws would mandate.

The green coalition hired consultant Mark Spalding, who launched a negative research operation to ferret out anything that could throw a dark shadow over ESSA, which had for decades operated the existing salt evaporation ponds 100 miles north of San Ignacio next to Scammon's Lagoon.

Spalding, a sharp biologist who speaks fluent Spanish, spent several days meeting villagers, talking to salt plant people and fishermen, snapping photos from the air, digging up research, chatting with scientists and poring over the laws.

Among his first moves, he suggested to NRDC that the company was secretly conspiring to close down the salt plant at Scammon's Lagoon, and essentially shift the population of the dusty town of Guerrero Negro -- with its untidy strip malls and bright lights -- down to the tidy, proud village of Punta Abreojos.

Spalding, lacking so much as a single company memo to that effect, didn't need proof. This was politics, not science. The rumor spread throughout the region. "The battle was to mold vivid impressions, not to prove some piece of data about the world market for salt," he says.

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