Peru’s health minister and clergyman talk intervention and cleanup of contamination from Doe Run smelter

Peru’s health minister met over the weekend with a top church official to discuss strategies to reduce hazardous lead levels and problems of air and water contamination affecting more than 35,000 people in La Oroya, a central highland mining town dubbed “Slow Chernobyl” given the appalling environmental impact of contamination generated by a U.S.-run smelter.

In La Oroya, located 180 kilometers east of Lima and 3,300 meters above sea level, a poly-metallic smelter and refinery complex has been spitting out clouds of toxic lead, copper, zinc and sulphur dioxide-filled smoke for more than 80 years. In the valley, where the surrounding limestone mountains have been stained black and burned bare of vegetation by acid rain, 99 percent of children have dangerously high blood lead levels and are stricken by symptoms of lead poisoning, including insomnia, abdominal pain, anaemia, and slowed speech development.

To remedy the situation, Peru Health Minister Hernán Garrido-Lecca and Archbishop Monsignor Pedro Barreto Jimeno proposed long-term lead exposure prevention strategies on Sunday, including negotiating inspections by foreign lead poisoning and exposure specialists, the construction of a specialized oncology hospital, and the installation of a water treatment plant and refractory filter plate to reduce air contamination.

But in la Oroya, 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.

According to the Blacksmith Institute, a New York-based environmental organization and U.S. think-tank that 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.

Studies have also shown high levels of air pollution, with 85 times more arsenic, 41 times more cadmium and 13 times more lead than amounts considered safe by the World Health Organization, or WHO.

The smelting plant, which processes up to 20 different metals including copper, lead and zinc, was built in 1922 by the U.S.-owned Cerro de Pasco Corporation, and taken over by the state-run Centromín Perú in 1974.

As early as the 1960s, lead poisoning was detected among smelter workers, though studies were not conducted among the general population for thirty more years.

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 2004, after an environmental study and government inspection records indicated that since Doe Run began running the plant concentrations of lead, sulfur dioxide, and arsenic in La Oroya’s air increased, the corporation asked the Peruvian government for a four-year extension to the smelter’s environmental management plan.

In La Oroya – where the majority of the town’s residents depend directly or indirectly on the smelting complex – Doe Run, which claims to have spent more than $6.5 million on social programs, operates soup kitchens and public showers, distributes Christmas gifts, and organizes brigades of volunteers to sweep up the toxic dust laden streets.

The company has carefully crafted a strategy to muddy its responsibility, argues the Inter-American Association for Environmental Defense, or AIDA.

“The city’s schools and even the police station are painted Doe Run’s corporate colors, green and white, and kids wear Doe Run sweat shirts,” reports AIDA, “and a company-organized platoon of volunteer “environmental delegates” cleans the streets, goes door to door dispensing hygiene tips, and organizes public hand-washing sessions for children, who get smiley-face stickers when they complete the task.

But criticism of Doe Run does not stop in Peru.

In Herculaneum, Missouri, where the corporation operates the largest lead smelter in the U.S., testing by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, and the Missouri Hazardous Waste Program revealed elevated levels of lead, arsenic, cadmium and other metals associated with smelting in the air, soil, and groundwater.

As a result of these findings, the federal government relocated nearly 100 households and forced Doe Run – who has topped the U.S. Environmental Protection Authority’s list as the worst air polluter in the country for nearly 13 years – to take action by implementing a multimillion-dollar emergency cleanup plan to reduce emissions from the lead smelter.

“Doe Run had to spend millions of dollars in Herculaneum to clean up the mess they created,” says Anna Cederstav, an environmental scientist with the Earthjustice law firm and program director at AIDA. “If they can go abroad and make a quick buck in places where they are not highly regulated, and send those profits home to pay the bills in the United States, they will absolutely do so.”

“The difference is that the US EPA has forced Doe Run to take action in the US while no strong government authority exists to advocate for environmental and health protections in Peru,” reports AIDA.

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