In the farm village of Cerro Cama, an hour west of Panama City, people have learned that an accident can deprive them of that water supply in an instant.
Blue Ribbon Products is a commercial pig farm. About a month after it opened in Cerro Cama in 2001, residents began seeing waste from pigs spilling into the Cano Quebrado and Los Hules-Tinajones Rivers, the main sources of drinking water for the town. Tests showed high levels of bacteria. Until the plant arrived, people in Cerro Cama said, the river water had been fine. Another episode of pollution occurred in early 2008.
After each of the episodes, dead fish floated to the surface and washed up on the river banks. People in Cerro Cama ran to shut off the water lines to their houses.
Representatives from Blue Ribbon Products could not be reached for comment. A reporter drove to the local offices of the company, in Cerro Cama, but was turned away from the main gate by the company’s security workers.
Pig farms are among the world’s worst agriculture polluters. They routinely pour waste into holding ponds or lagoons. Sometimes the lagoons overflow.
The incidents have shaken the people of Cerro Cama. They worry about further contamination. “The rivers are all we have for water,” said Ana Celia Moreno, 37. a homemaker and the mother of two young children.
After the contamination in 2001, the town formed a committee to protect the rivers. The committee has been working with assistance from the United States Agency for International Development and the Panama Canal Authority. The committee members say that a representative of Blue Ribbon has attended some of their meetings and that they regard that as progress.
Some residents are resentful that the townspeople had “to come together as a community to monitor the river water on our own time,” said Calixto Camargo, 50, the chairman of a local non-governmental organization, the Environmental Foundation for Community Development. That work, he said, should be the responsibility of the Panama Canal Authority and the National Environmental Authority of Panama.
He says the environmental authority has been negligent. “It’s not possible for a government body to allow a company like that to contaminate our water,” he said. “They are responsible for the businesses that they allow to set up shop here.”
After the 2001 spill the environmental authority fined Blue Ribbon $12,000. After the second incident, the environmental agency promised to protect the community from further contamination.
The Panama Canal Authority and the environmental authority say they are monitoring operations at the pig farm and the condition of the rivers. But Mr. Camargo suggested he was not sure the town could rely on the environmental agency. “The truth is,” he said, “these businesses have a lot of power and millions of dollars invested. If something does happen again, the reality is they would need to slowly move out of the area. It’s not going to happen overnight.”
For some residents, the best thing that could happen would be for the farm to pack up its hogs and go elsewhere.
Mr. Moreno worries about her family’s health. “If they moved out of the area,” she said of the pig farm, “we wouldn’t have to worry about drinking, cooking or bathing with dirty water.”