IN THE NEWS ~ Mexican authorities shut down Blackfire mine Officials cite environmental infractions for temporary closing of barite operation

Mexican authorities shut down Blackfire mine Officials cite environmental infractions for temporary closing of barite operation; deny action has any connection to slaying of activist

Globe & Mail
Gloria Galloway and Andy Hoffman
With files from The Canadian Press TORONTO and OTTAWA

The Canadian mining company entangled in a murder investigation of a local activist has had its mine shut down by Mexican authorities because of environmental violations.

The Ministry of the Environment for the state of Chiapas has temporarily closed a barite mine owned by Calgary-based Blackfire Exploration Ltd., citing several infractions, including pollution and causing toxic emissions, a government spokeswoman said yesterday.

Three men linked to Blackfire, including a current employee, were recently arrested in the Nov. 27 slaying of activist Mariano Abarca Roblero, who had publicly protested against the mining operation located in Chicomuselo, Chiapas. Ministry spokeswoman Carolina Ochoa denied the mine closing had anything to do with the killing.

Brent Willis, president of Blackfire, said the company has not been told why the mine, which has been operating since November, 2008, was closed.

"The government asked for it to be shut down today . . . we don't have an understanding of why it was shut down," Mr. Willis said in an interview.

Privately held Blackfire, which is controlled by Mr. Willis, his brother Brent and Mexican investor Emiliano Canales Avila, has denied any role in the death of Mr. Abarca, who was gunned down in a drive-by shooting outside his home.

Mexico's Attorney-General has said that all three men arrested in the murder are linked to Blackfire. Mr. Willis denied this. He said one man, Caralampio Lopez Vazquez, works for the company, but that the other two are no longer employees.

"We were not involved in the incident in any manner," Mr. Willis said.

The mine shutdown and murder investigation comes as Canadian Governor-General Michaelle Jean visits Chiapas on a diplomatic tour and as Parliament considers Bill C-300, a private member's bill that would impose sanctions on Canadian resource companies that violate human rights and environmental standards in foreign countries.

The powerful mining industry is lobbying hard to quash the bill, introduced by Liberal MP John McKay, but concedes the Blackfire situation is unlikely to help its cause.

"It is a serious situation and it is a tragic situation," Gordon Peeling, president and chief executive officer of The Mining Association of Canada, said of the murder.

"It is not helpful in terms of the dynamic of the discussion for those that want to link these things. Their thinking is flawed if they try to link it to C-300," he added.

Roger Maldonado, another activist in Chiapas who knew Mr. Abarca, said Blackfire has been accused of causing environmental damage and bribing local officials and that anti-mining activists have faced threats and retaliation from mine employees.

"They feel their jobs are jeopardized by somebody protesting against the mine," Mr. Maldonado said in an interview.

Ms. Jean and Peter Kent, Canada's junior foreign minister for the Americas, were touring in Mexico yesterday as the Blackfire mining operation was being shut down.

A spokeswoman for Ms. Jean said the Canadian delegation was not targeted by protests related to either the environmental accusations that have dogged the mine or the murder charges pending against people linked to the Canadian company.

But in Canada, federal opposition members say there must be some controls placed on Canadian corporations operating abroad.

Mr. McKay, the author of Bill C-300 said allegations like those levied against Blackfire, even if unproven, damage the company, the industry and the reputation of all Canadians.

Peter Julian, an NDP MP who has put forth his own bill that would allow people who have been harmed by Canadian corporations operating in other countries to seek redress in a Canadian court, says Mr.
McKay's bill does not go far enough.

"The actions of a Canadian company, good or bad, have an impact on Canada as a whole," said Mr. Julian, whose proposed legislation is unlikely to get as far as Mr. McKay's.

"There is no doubt that there are a number of Canadian companies that have been irresponsible," he said. "That, unfortunately, gives a black eye to the whole industry and does have an impact on Canada." The government needs a means of address for these kinds of issues to ensure that Canadian companies are always acting in a socially end environmentally responsible manner, Mr. Julian said.

Eleanor Johnston, a spokeswoman for Mr. Kent, confirmed that no protesters greeted the Canadian dignitaries yesterday. "A crime has been committed and the appropriate Mexican authorities are investigating," said Ms. Johnston.