What is barite? The exploitation of the Canadian Blackfire in Chiapas

What is barite? The exploitation of the Canadian Blackfire in Chiapas

By Gustavo Castro Soto

The Canadian transnational company Blackfire Exploration has been mining the mountains for years to extract barite. Many hazardous waste landfills contain certain amounts of barium that does affect those who live near them and are exposed to breathing dust, skin contact, eating soil or plants, or drinking water that is contaminated with barium.

In August 2008, it was announced that the Canadian transnational Blackfire would exploit in Chiapas "the largest barite mine in the world, which would reach a production rate of 360,000 tons per year of this stone used for oil drilling in about eight months." Artemio Avila, its general director in Mexico, confirmed that the open pit mine will allow Mexico to dispense with current imports from China and India, from which it buys about 50,000 tons per month. He also estimated that the mine in Chicomuselo, Chiapas, has a useful life of one hundred years.

Since then, it has been estimated that at a price of $ 130 per ton of barite, the mine could generate annual revenues of about $ 45.5 million. (1) At the same time, the last year has seen the largest social protests and peasant women against this company in Chiapas. (2)

For this reason, a year later, in September 2009, the Governor of Chiapas, Juan Sabines Guerrero and his Secretary of Health, assisted the municipality of Chicomuselo to calm the spirits of the population against the mining companies, especially Canadian. The Canadian transnational company Blackfire Exploration has been mining the mountains for years to extract barite. The peasants denounce the contamination of the water, the death of cattle every day and the loss of water in streams and other sources that have disappeared. On the subject, the Secretary of Health, James Gómez Montes, explained to the assembly that: “(…) according to the results of serious investigations, barite –a sandy-liquid mineral– is not an element of toxicity in the environment or in water from Chicomuselo, despite the fact that there are mines of this product. He explained that this mineral is harmless to human health, since it is generally found even in the water that is consumed around the world, in minute quantities. Here, in this region of the Chiapas mountains, the amounts in the water are even less than elsewhere. Only in excessively large quantities could it cause any damage, explained the Secretary of Health, to the tranquility of the people of Chicomuselo. In addition to industrial uses, in materials such as rubber, barite has medical uses, since it is injected into patients undergoing ultrasound and resonance studies as a liquid contrast substance, without implying any type of risk to the health. ”(3)

Given the confusion generated by such statements, it is necessary to deepen, even a little, what is barite and its consequences, an issue that is of great concern to the inhabitants and organizations of Chicomuselo in Chiapas.

What is barite? (4)

The word 'barite' has its origin in the Greek word 'barós' which means heavy, since its specific weight is up to 4.5 grams per cubic centimeter (gr / cc). That is why it is also known as barite or heavy spar. Barium (Ba) is a chemical element with atomic number 56 and atomic weight of 137.34.

Barium is a non-metallic, inert, non-toxic, soft, ductile, malleable and highly reactive mineral, and it is not found in its pure state because it reacts rapidly with other elements in nature. It is so chemically active that it reacts with most non-metals. Freshly cut pieces have a glossy gray-white appearance. But the color goes from transparent to white, going through pale pink, silver, blue, yellow and yellowish-red, depending on the impurities it contains. Although barite was discovered by Scheele in 1774 by examining the black oxide of manganese that barite may contain in a combined state, credit is given to Humphry Davy who first isolated the mineral by the galvanic cell via mercury in 1808. (5)

Barium oxidizes rapidly in air and forms a grayish protective film that prevents further reaction. It corrodes quickly when exposed to humid air and can become inflamed. It reacts strongly with water, it is very soluble in water, more than strontium and calcium, but less than sodium. It occupies the 18th place in greater abundance in the earth's crust, where it is found at 0.04%, an intermediate value between calcium and strontium, the other alkaline earth metals. As it is so reactive with other elements, it is only found by forming compounds that are obtained from mining and by conversion of two most important barium minerals:

1) Barium sulfate, barite or barite (BaSO4) is the main mineral and contains 65.79% barium oxide. It is a very common mineral of the sulfate class and of the AXO4 type. Frequently appears together with calcite and quartz. “The crystals are generally tabular parallel to the base, sometimes they have the appearance of coffins. If the tabulars are divergent they form what is called “barite roses”. It is usually found in some solid solution depending on the combination. Barite is part of the mineralogical group also made up of celestite, anglesite and anhydrite.

2) Barium carbonate or witherite (BaCO3), is also called heavy spar and contains 72% barium oxide. When calcined in a furnace it is reduced to barium sulphide or black ash, which when treated with hot water serves as a base material for other compounds. Barium oxide can be obtained by burning barium and is a white, hygroscopic solid (Ba O). However, it is commonly formed through the breakdown of other barium salts such as barium carbonate (BaCO3). When it comes into contact with water, barium oxide turns into barium hydroxide.

What is Barite used for?

It is mainly used in the oil industry since the barite does not produce sparks when mixed. This allows that in oil drilling there are no risks of explosion due to friction or gas pockets.

Barium compounds are also used in the oil and gas industry to make drilling lubricants. To make acid resistant paints; or in the manufacture of lithopone (white powder consisting of 20% barium sulfate, 30% zinc sulfide and less than 3% zinc oxide) as a pigment in white paints. Barium chromate, lemon chromium or chromium yellow, is used in yellow pigments and safety phosphors.

Barium compounds are also used in the ceramic industry to prevent efflorescence in clay for earthenware, or in the manufacture of tiles; as a flux in the glass industry or to produce various types of glass, or as a glaze in pottery and optical glass. Another use that is given is in the manufacture of brake pads for automobiles. Also as an insulator for lead in radiation. As protection in X-ray rooms by absorbing radiation. In medicine it is used to be drunk in order to help contrast in X-rays of the digestive system and in medicinal preparations. Barium oxide is used as a coating for hot cathodes and in cathode ray tubes. For making nickel alloy spark plug wires. But also in alloy with lead and calcium to produce the metal of Frary. It is also used to coat the filaments of cold lamps. It is used by industry to increase refraction for various industrial purposes or as a catalyst. It is also used as a pigment and for the manufacture of hydrogen peroxide. It is used in the rubber industry as a filler material, as a drying agent in industry, for hardening steels, as a chemical reagent, and in metallurgy.

Barite compounds are used to make rat poison; for salt purification; in the manufacture of sodium chloride and hydroxide; as a flux in magnesium alloys, or as a boiler water softener. Barium nitrate is used in pyrotechnics and light signals (it produces green color). Barium peroxide is also used as a bleaching agent. Barium acetate and cyanide are used in industry as a chemical reagent and in metallurgy, respectively.

Effects of barium on health

High amounts of Barium can only be found in soils and food, such as nuts, algae, fish and certain plants. The amount of Barium that is detected in food and water is generally not high enough to affect health. However, it does affect people who work in the barium industry who are permanently exposed to the mineral, mainly from breathing air that contains barium sulfate or barium carbonate.

Barium oxide is harmful by inhalation and by ingestion (Danger Level R20 / 22) (6). It is recommended to keep out of the reach of children and, in case of contact with the skin, wash immediately and abundantly with the product specified by the manufacturer (Danger Level S2-S28) .7 Barium oxide is an irritant. If it comes into contact with the skin or eyes, or if it is inhaled, it can cause pain and redness. However, it is much more dangerous when ingested. In case of ingestion, medical attention should be sought immediately.

Many hazardous waste landfills contain certain amounts of barium that does affect those who live near them and are exposed to breathing dust, skin contact, eating soil or plants, or drinking water that is contaminated with barium.

The health effects of barium depend on the solubility of the compounds. Barium compounds that dissolve in water can affect human health. Taking a large amount of barium that is soluble can cause paralysis and in some cases even death. This may be one of the causes of the registration of dead cattle in Chicomuselo since, although the extraction is done dry, in contact with water and other elements its compounds may have already contaminated the water in the region. Even small amounts of water-soluble barium can cause shortness of breath, increased blood pressure, arrhythmia, stomach pain, muscle weakness, changes in nerve reflexes, inflammation of the brain and liver. Damage to the kidneys and heart.

However, barium has not been shown to cause cancer in people or to cause infertility or birth defects.

There are other sources that relate barite to mercury, which makes it more dangerous even when dissolved in water: “Worldwide, including Mexico, the risk posed by mercury concentrations that naturally accompany barite, in different concentrations (barite deposits containing mercury from 10 ppm to 1 ppm are known).

These concentrations of heavy metals, such as mercury in barite, have led to their official regulation (the maximum permissible limit is 1ppm), and the search for alternative technological solutions to eliminate mercury, given its potential health risks. and the environment. For years, mining and oil companies and other powerful stakeholders have denied this risk, using studies aimed at denying the risk, but recent studies have shown the need to anticipate it through stricter regulation. The Environment Agency (EPA) and the US Department of Energy have been working in that direction. " (8)

Barium environmental effects

Barium oxide is also dangerous for the environment. It is especially dangerous for aquatic organisms. (9) Barium also appears combined with sulfur, carbon or oxygen.

Barium has been released into the environment in large quantities by numerous industrial uses, which has caused high concentrations in the soil, in the air due to the combustion of coal and oils; into water by being released into streams, rivers, lakes, or other sources. Barium is released into the air by mines in the refining process and during compounding. Since it is very soluble with water, it is very persistent in the medium and can travel long distances as far as the water reaches. Aquatic organisms and fish can absorb barium compounds that build up in their bodies.

Barium can remain on the surface of the soil or in the sediments of bodies of water. That is why barium has been recorded in most soils.

With all of the above, one of the greatest environmental impacts has to do with deforestation and the total elimination of the vegetal layer to extract the barite. It involves the total destruction of hills and mountains that cannot be recovered. You cannot rebuild a mountain or its topsoil. For this reason, it releases CO2, increasing climate change, as well as eliminating the possibilities of absorbing it by eliminating forests and biodiversity.

This brings other environmental consequences such as the destruction of microclimates, habitats, contaminated water sources or disappeared streams; formation of cracks due to detonations and explosives that even filter the waters causing communities and residents to run out of water; loss of medicinal plants, animals; loss of food and insects that reproduce biodiversity, etc. Houses, land and territory are lost with the exploitation of barite.

As if that were not enough, this environmental situation will bring other problems in the immediate future. In addition to the fact that the inhabitants down the mountain will receive contaminated water or will lack it in their usual sources, landslides are coming, floods as there is no vegetation layer that contains the rainwater and finally catastrophes.

The social effects of Barium.

In addition to the violation of human rights, economic, social, cultural, environmental and indigenous peoples' rights, companies cause divisions and confrontations even between families in order to extract barium. Few are those who benefit from precarious employment and many are affected. Lies, blackmail, pressure, broken promises, purchase of ejidal and community leaders and authorities, corruption, alcoholism, lack of products, are some of the effects of this business. The highly subsidized multinationals also do not pay taxes, much less pay for the water they use, and even worse, they do not clean the water that they dirty and return to the basin all contaminated. Nor do they implement mitigation or compensation programs for the population.

While the mining companies encourage divisions, confrontation, coercion, intimidation every time their interests are threatened, it is the inhabitants and social, indigenous and peasant organizations who are accused of being violent if they defend their rights, accusations like the ones the governor of Chiapas did in September. (10) Thus, society is militarized and violence, prisoners, threats of imprisonment and even migrants or displaced people grow. BLAKFIRE OUT OF CHIAPAS!

Gustavo Castro Soto placeholder image - Other Worlds, AC / Friends of the Earth Mexico - San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico; October 2009


1- Mexico, August 27, 2008 (EFE)

2- You can see the history of this process in the mining chapter at

3- Bulletin 2089 of the Government of the State of Chiapas; September 26, 2009;

4- All the information in this document is taken from:;; Oxido_de_bario


6- R Phrases are a numbered set of phrases and phrase combinations used to describe the risks attributed to a hazardous substance or preparation. They are described in Annex III of Directive 67/548 / EEC and its amendments.

7- Phrases S are a numbered set of phrases and combinations of phrases used to indicate the basic use and precautionary advice for working with dangerous substances or preparations. They appear in Annex IV of Directive 67/548 / EC and its subsequent amendments.

8- Alejandro Villamar, RMALC

9- Oxido_de_bario#cite_note-3

10- Bulletin 2089 of the Government of the State of Chiapas; September 26, 2009;

Also suggested as references:

1. Compounds of barium: barium (II) oxide. Web Elements. The University of Sheffield.
2. "Barium Oxide (chemical compound)". Encyclopædia Britanica. Encyclopædia Britanica (2007).

3. Nield, Gerald; Washecheck, Paul; Yang, Kang (05-04), United States Patent 4210764,

4. "Barium Oxide (ICSC)". IPCS (October 1999).

5. International Chemical Safety Card 0778 (in English)


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