The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release

In Milwaukee, contact Babette Grunow at 
(414) 447-8369
In Washington, DC,
contact Lisa Fuller at (202) 521-2510
In La Crosse, contact Al Gedicks at (608)
In El Salvador, contact (in Spanish)
David Pereira at 011 503 2225-1906 Ext. 106
El Salvador
( in English), contact Sarah Bishop at 011 503 785-727-2252

Community Organizations Call on Commerce Group to Drop its $100 Million Lawsuit Against El Salvador

Milwaukee-based firm suing over decision to block its mining operations after evidence of massive water contamination


A coalition of Milwaukee and national organizations called on Commerce Group, a Milwaukee-based mining corporation to drop its controversial $100 million legal case against the government of El Salvador. In 2006 the Salvadoran government revoked the company's mining permits, following evidence that its operations were dumping highly toxic poisons into local water. In retaliation, Commerce Group filed a demand before a World Bank trade court (the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes, ICSID) demanding not only payment for its investments but also for tens of millions of dollars in what it claims are "lost profits." The demand is being filed under the foreign investor "protections" of the U.S.-Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA). The first hearing in the case will take place on November 15 in Washington, D.C.

Miguel Rivera, an environmental organizer with the Association for Economic and Social Development (ADES) in El Salvador, warned that the case and the international trade rules that allow it "limit the government's ability to defend the lives of the residents" and "put economic rights above the people's right to life."

Commerce Group's mining activity in El Salvador over the past 40 years has resulted in severe environmental and public health problems in the municipality of Santa Rosa de Lima, where the mine is located. The Salvadoran government revoked Commerce Group's mining permit on September 13, 2006, citing devastating environmental damage that can't be prevented with any existing modern technology.

A 2006 study by Dr. Flaviano Bianchini found that the San Sebastian River, which runs through the town contains 100,000 times more acid than uncontaminated bodies of water in the same region. The study also found levels of poisonous cyanide more than 10 times higher than the maximum allowed by the World Health Organization. The Investment and Trade Research Center in El Salvador has recently filed a lawsuit against Commerce Group with the Salvadoran Attorney General to investigate the connection between mining activities and disproportionate rates of death due to kidney failure in nearby communities, likely related to elevated levels of heavy metals in the San Sebastian River.

According to Al Gedicks, professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and author of Resource Rebels, commenting on the case, said "If anything, it is Commerce Group who should be paying for the toxic legacy they have left behind." Gedicks is one of several scholars who have joined an international coalition of environmental organizations, policy advocates and churches to halt the lawsuit and stop metallic mining in El Salvador. The group, the Midwest Coalition Against Lethal Mining (MCALM), includes several national organizations such as Sister Cities and CISPES, the Committee in Solidarity with the people of El Salvador.

According to Babette Grunow of MCALM, "This lawsuit is a cynical attempt by an unsuccessful company to exploit international trade agreements to make money that they have been unable to make by legitimate means." Grunow points to Commerce Group's own filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, which shows no earnings since 2002, four years before their permit was revoked. "This lawsuit is nothing but a dishonest 'get rich quick' scheme at the expense of an entire nation," said Grunow.

Chapter 11 of DR-CAFTA, under which Commerce Group has filed its suit, remains one of the most controversial aspects of U.S. trade policy. The equivalent chapter in NAFTA, Chapter 10, has come under fire in recent years, including from President Obama. During his presidential campaign, Obama promised to "strictly limit" foreign investor protections in a renegotiation of NAFTA and to fully exempt any regulation protecting public safety.