La Oroya: sulfur contents in air exceed historical levels around Doe Run smelter

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 last week when record-breaking levels of sulfur dioxide were detected, daily El Comercio reported Tuesday.

In La Oroya, located 180 kilometers, or about 112 miles, east of Lima, a poly-metallic smelter and refinery complex has been spewing clouds of toxic lead, copper, zinc and sulfur 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.

On Aug. 13, as residents covered their mouths with handkerchiefs to be able to breathe, the El Sindicato monitoring station — located nearest the smelter — registered a sulfur dioxide concentration of 27,000 micrograms per cubic meter of air. 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. No explanation was immediately provided for the dramatic sulfur level spike.

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

Similar elevated levels of sulfur dioxide were registered in monitoring stations located a few kilometers away from the smelter, in Marcavalle and Huari.

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.

According to Greenpeace, health effects of exposure to elevated levels sulfur dioxide include impairment of respiratory function, aggravation of existing respiratory disease and cardiovascular disease. Sulfur dioxide may also lead to increased mortality, especially if elevated levels of suspended particles are also present.

As a result of the particulate air pollution crisis, a state of emergency was immediately declared by the General Direction of Environmental Health, or Digesa. The measure was enforced from 9:15 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. as residents were advised to keep their windows shut and those suffering from respiratory diseases to stay indoors until the smoke cleared.

Peru’s Supreme Court ruled in the summer of 2006 that the government’s Health Ministry was negligent in protecting La Oroya’s children and ordered it to implement an emergency health plan.

The plan includes measures aimed at protecting the health of local residents, such as a contingency plan during peak emission periods.

But, in La Oroya, the gravity of the situation has continually been underestimated. The city, which lies 3,300 meters, or nearly 11,000 feet, above sea level, was named one of the ten most polluted places in the world by the Blacksmith Institute in 2006 and 2007.

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.

According to Doe Run Company’s subsidiary, Doe Run Peru, it has invested over $132 million in environmental improvement projects since they began operation in 1997. A January 2007 independent audit of their plant found they were meeting Peru’s emissions standards.

But an independent scientific study released by “Revive El Mantaro” in November 2007 still found alarming lead concentrations in and around La Oroya in comparison with international standards.

Huancayo’s archbishop, Pedro Barreto, told La República that “mining companies should comply with international environmental standards, rather than national ones, which are beneath the dignity of the Peruvian people.”

Arsenic, cadmium, and zinc are other elements found in high concentrations in La Oroya that are causing major concern among health activists. As a result, people living in La Oroya face a high risk of developing lung cancer as well as other respiratory ailments, skin conditions, and digestive disorders.

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