When I first found out that I was going to live in Tula de Allende, Hidalgo, I immediately got online to find out what I could about my new community. I quickly learned about the historical and cultural significance of Tula, as the seat of the Toltec Empire. The second thing I learned was that the state of Hidalgo prides itself as the “Tierra de Trabajo,” and is particularly proud of its Pemex oil refinery.
For some background, Pemex (Petroleos Mexicanos) is Mexico’s nationalized oil and gas producer and distributor. Foreign oil operations in Mexico were expropriated in 1938, which created the current state-owned Pemex. The country’s economy relies heavily on profits from exports. As oil prices have recently dropped, Mexico’s economy has suffered and the Mexican Peso has lost value relative to the U.S. Dollar.
There are six Pemex refineries in Mexico, and the one in Tula is the region’s largest with 325,000 barrels of crude oil processed daily. The “Refineria Miguel Hidalgo” is the second largest in the country in terms of number of barrels processed. Construction of the refinery began in 1976.
The refinery is one of the area’s largest employers and you really can’t go anywhere in Tula without being reminded of its presence. There is a neighborhood in Tula called “Colonia Pemex,” which is supposedly reserved for the refinery’s employees and their families. There is even a hospital, a child-care center, two elementary schools, a recreation center and a hotel. In the early mornings and at the end of the workday, orange jump suit laden refinery laborers file on to buses marked with “Refineria.” From certain hilltops in Tula, the refinery’s lights shine and the tall structures look like another city.
Although the refinery brings money to the municipality, it also brings pollution. Before arriving in Tula, I expected the air quality to be dismal. I prepared to be surrounded by a constant presence of smog. Upon arriving, however, I realized that the majority of fumes and pollution from the refinery are carried by wind away from Tula.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that the pollution disappears. Rather, poorer communities to the east of Tula feel the brunt of the negative effects. There are without doubt serious issues of environmental injustice at play here. The relatively wealthier community is spared the constant stream of refinery pollution, while smaller, under-resourced communities now experience higher rates of cancer and respirator issues.*
People that I’ve talked to in Tula tell me that Tula is the most contaminated place in Mexico, and even in the world. This is false (see this and this article). But the truth is that Tula and the surrounding area is severely polluted (Mexico City’s air pollution issues are widely discussed, and the city is not that far away from Tula). I think the fact that I’ve heard this pollution claim from various people shows that contamination is a visible issue in the community. The issue of contamination goes far beyond air pollution from the refinery, and I will explore the issues of ground and water contamination in a forthcoming post.
*Note: rates of cancer in the area have increased steadily. The public hospital is finishing construction on an oncology wing to accommodate more patients.