"Were you there?"
Protesters from Latin America clash with a mining company's lawyer.
Steve Watrous (left) and John Machulak (right)
In the end, salad dressing was not
poured onto the sidewalk. Steve Watrous, a sociology instructor at MATC's
Downtown campus and one of the activists who organized Monday’s protest outside
the law office of Machulak, Robertson and Sodos, couldn't remember the
exact variety demonstrators had selected – Newman’s Own, something with garlic.
What mattered most, for the splatter factor, was its color, a mucky red as it
oozed out of the bottle held aloft by Esmeralda Villalta (a Salvadoran who had
traveled to Milwaukee for the demonstration) and into an ice cream bucket set
aside for the big splash. A piece of paper pasted over the dressing bottle
original’s label read, “Toxic Water™ by Commerce Group,” and the possibility of
the demonstrators actually goo-ing the doorstep of the law office of Machulak,
Robertson and Sodos hung in the air until the mining company’s counsel, John
Machulak, came out of the house on Farwell Avenue and embroiled the scene in a
Monday’s press conference had gone off as planned. Villalta gave a Spanish
language interview to a reporter from CBS/Telemundo and then spoke through a
translator to denounce metallic mining. Commerce Group owns a gold mine in El
Salvador that environmentalists in the U.S. and residents in a nearby town
blame for polluting the San Sebastian River and surrounding water table with
arsenic and heavy metals, turning the stream a color like cranberry juice. “All
they have left is environmental destruction and health problems,” said
Villalta, who repeated that local residents suffer from high rates of renal
failure and a rare paralytic disease called Guillain-Barré syndrome.
with the Oxfam organization accused Commerce Group of acting with a “depraved
indifference” toward the people living in the gold-rich region, where some
still mine the mountains a rock at a time.
For much of its existence, Commerce Group has
persisted as an inactive participant in the global mining industry. The Milwaukee-based
company ran the El Salvador mine until 1978, when a Civil War forced the outfit
run by the late Edward L. Machulak to flee the country. Son (and current lawyer
for Commerce Group) John Machulak said on Monday, soon after coming outside,
that the company hasn't mined at the site since 1978, which is partly
because the Salvadoran government denied the mine a permit amid a national
freeze on metallic mining that followed the election of a left-wing president,
Mauricio Funes, in 2009.
subsequently sued the national government under the Central America Free Trade
Agreement for $100 million in lost profits, an action that likely came to an
end on Aug. 28 with an order from the International Centre for Settlement of
Investment Disputes discontinuing the case’s most recent chapter. Commerce
Group had failed to pay $250,000 to cover “the remainder of the proceedings,
including a hearing, the Committee’s deliberations and the drafting of the
decision,” said the finely detailed, 10-page order.
Esmeralda Villalta (left) and Alexandra Early (right), a translator.
Mining is a hot topic in Wisconsin these days
with Gogebic Taconite's efforts to establish an iron ore mine in the Penokee
Hills region, and State Rep. Fred Kessler (D-Milwaukee) spoke briefly at the
presser. “We can see how destructive this is,” he said but left before
the protesters climbed the law firm’s steps to deliver a
550-signature petition. Perhaps he was thinking of the confrontation that was
“I hope you don’t
mind us covering up your sidewalk,” Watrous said when Machulak came down.
“I don’t mind,”
the lawyer said, greeting the group, “if you just gave us a little advance
notice.” After taking in the TV camera and reporters standing to one side, he
explained that the company has not mined on the site since 1978; and then he
referenced a report that concluded the biggest pollutant in the area was, in
fact, stray human and animal feces.
“If you want to
come in, and you want to go through the reports, then come in,” he said, adding
that Watrous had already met with him, in his office. “This is absolutely
uncalled for. This is just like a campaign.”
One of the
translators said a 2012 report from the Ministry of the Environment found not
fecal matter or mercury – used in the artisan mining cited by Machulak as
another pollutant – but high cyanide levels. She handed some papers to the
lawyer, who began looking through them and asked, “Where is the group? Usually
it’s commissioned by a group.”
repeated that the national government had produced the report, and there was
more arguing. “Were you there?” Machulak asked.
Salvadoran!” the other translator exclaimed, “and we've been there as of May of
left, the protesters stood around a bit before decamping to a speaking
engagement at Carroll College. Representatives of the "Sister Cities" network and the Association for the Development of El Salvador, the demonstrators said they had already been to Austin,
Texas, and had plans to visit Madison, Chicago, Michigan, St. Louis and Kansas
while in the country.
translator looked taken aback. “It’s amazing that he actually came out,” she