Doe Run Peru inaugurates $50 million sulphuric acid treatment plant in La Oroya

Doe Run Peru inaugurated a $50 million plant to treat sulfur dioxide emissions from its La Oroya poly-metallic smelter and refinery complex, said Juan Carlos Huyhua, Doe Run Peru’s president and general manager.

“It will be a fundamental element in the reduction of the (La Oroya smelting complex) emissions,” said Huyhua in comments to state news agency Andina, “in this manner progressively reducing whatever impact the production process may have on the environment.”

The sulphuric acid plant, which was inaugurated Tuesday after a 15-month construction process, will improve La Oroya residents’ quality of life, said Huyhua, who argues that the plant will significantly lower sulfur dioxide levels in the air.

The plant is the second of three sulphuric acid plants being constructed under the Peruvian government’s Environmental Suitableness and Management Program, or PAMA.

In 1997, soon after Peru passed its first national environmental laws, Doe Run, a subsidiary of the Renco Group owned by Ira Rennart, was privatized and acquired by the Missouri-based Doe Run for $125 million, plus $120 million in upgrades. At that time, the environmental damage in La Oroya was so severe that Rio Tinto, a large British mining company, decided it was not worth buying.

As part of the purchase agreement, Doe Run agreed to comply with a 10-year environmental cleanup plan.

But in August, the health and environmental crisis in La Oroya, a central highland mining town dubbed “Slow Chernobyl” for the appalling environmental impact of contamination generated by a U.S.-run smelter, reached a new stage when record-breaking levels of sulfur dioxide were detected.

The sulfur dioxide levels rose from the former record benchmark of 22,000 parts per cubic meter registered by the El Sindicato monitoring station on Aug. 4 and 17,000 parts on July 21, according to the Peruvian environmental Web page Eco Portal.Net.

Peruvian law stipulates sulfur dioxide levels within a set legal limit of 364 micrograms or less per cubic meter of air.

Sulfur dioxide emissions from the U.S.-run Doe Run smelter sometimes reach 10 times the amount considered acceptable by the World Health Organization, or WHO, and the annual mean concentration exceeds this level by a factor of two or three.

The Blacksmith Institute, a New York-based environmental organization and U.S. think-tank, listed La Oroya as one of the world’s most polluted places in 2007. Lung ailments are widespread, and high numbers of premature deaths have been linked to the smelter’s 1.5 tons of lead and 810 tons of sulphur dioxide daily emissions.

And in La Oroya, where 99 percent of children have dangerously high blood lead levels, even if active emissions from the smelter were to be reduced, if the expended lead is not cleaned up, it will remain in the acid-washed soil for centuries and continue to make residents ill.

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