Coatzacoalcos River, a relatively small river that drains a basin of 8,448 square miles. It forms on the north slope of the Sierra Atravesada, flows northward across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, and empties into the Gulf of Mexico near its namesake city. A major tributary, the Jaltepec, rises on the northern side of the Sierra de Oaxaca.
Despite its size, the river always has been important because of its association with transis-thmian communications. In 1521 Hernán Cortés sent Gonzalo de Sandoval to explore it as a potential route to the Pacific. During the colonial period, goods were carried by boat to an upriver landing on the Coatzacoalcos and thence overland to Tehuantepec on the Pacific side of the isthmus.
In 1774, the viceroy of New Spain, Antonio María de Bucareli ordered a survey of the isthmus for construction of a canal through the mountains to connect the upper reaches of the Coatzacoalcos with the Pacific. Almost a century later, in 1870, as interest in a U.S. canal developed after the Civil War, Admiral Robert W. Shufeldt surveyed the Coatzacoalcos and recommended that it be built there. Proposals for a railway that would carry fully laden ships across the isthmus were advanced in 1880 (by James B. Eads) and again in the 1940s (by the Mexican engineer Modesto Rolland), but neither of these remarkably ambitious projects got beyond the planning stage.
The earliest petroleum finds on the Gulf side of the isthmus were in 1907, but it was not until additional discoveries were made in the 1970s that the region became an important center of petroleum production. The Coatzacoalcos River is navigable for more than 100 miles and is the port for the city of Coatzacoalcos. Mexico's busiest port, Pajaritos, which serves a massive Pemex complex, is adjacent to the river.
One of the biggest petroleum spills in the Coatzacoalcos River occurred on 22 December 2004; it spread as far as Nanchital, Veracruz. The spill could have been contained, but because of the negligence of the Mexican Petroleum (PEMEX) personnel, the pumping of crude was not suspended even though there was a fire and an explosion at the pumping station at Mazumiapan, 120 kilometers from the spill. The spill of five thousand barrels of crude petroleum contaminated the stream of Tepeyac, the Coatzacoalcos River, and the beaches of Coatzacoalcos and Congregation of Beyond.
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John J. Winberry