October 8th, 2013
Milwaukee Magazine

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 debate.

Until then, 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.

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.

Commerce Group 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.

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