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Doe Run smelter divides mining town
Barbara J. Fraser
3/16/2006
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US mining company employs 3,000 in Andean town, but residents in its shadow face severe health risks.

Miguel Ángel Curi knows that his curly-haired toddler, María de los Angeles, suffers from lead poisoning. And he knows that the best way to protect her would be to take her away from this town where a multi-metal smelter has spewed heavy metals and sulfur dioxide into the air for more than eight decades.

“If I had the opportunity to go start over somewhere else, I´d go,” said Curi, 35, who has lived most of his life in La Oroya, a town of about 30,000, wedged between steep mountains more than 3,700 meters (12,000 feet) above sea level.

But he fears that if he left, he would lose all he has invested in his home over the years.

“How can I start all over again as a beggar?” he asked.

The dilemma leaves Curi and many of his neighbors trapped in what is arguably one of the most polluted cities in the Western Hemisphere.

While executives of the US-based Doe Run Company, which owns the smelter, say they are working to improve air quality around the smelter, community organizations question the company´s data. The Peruvian Ministry of Energy and Mines is weighing the company´s request for an extension on its deadline for controlling sulfur dioxide emissions.

The smelter belches about 900 tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere daily. While emissions from its main stack have been reduced, “fugitive emissions” that escape from other parts of the plant are not yet under control and are difficult to gauge.

Doe Run originally had until the end of this year to bring the plant into compliance with environmental norms. Company executives say they will complete the work necessary to reduce metals emissions, but that they will be unable to meet the deadline for upgrading one plant that captures sulfur dioxide and turns it into sulfuric acid.

Waiting for a response
In December Doe Run filed a request for an extension of that part of its environmental adaptation and management plan, known as a PAMA for its Spanish initials.

The Ministry issued a 90-point list of comments on this request Feb. 17, giving the company 30 days to respond. The list called for more detailed engineering plans, changes in the way the company monitors air quality and better contingency plans for air-quality emergencies.

The Ministry´s response hints that it would consider a three-year extension rather than the four years that the company is requesting.

At a press conference by a coalition of church and grassroots groups and nongovernmental organizations before the Ministry released its comments, Carlos Chirinos of the Peruvian Environmental Law Society said that if the company´s request were granted, it would amount to “one more extension so it could keep polluting.”

In late 2004, a study by Peru´s Health Ministry found that 99.9 percent of 788 children under age 6 living in La Oroya Antigua, the area of town closest to the smelter, had blood lead levels exceeding the World Health Organization´s maximum limit of 10 micrograms per deciliter — a limit that health experts believe is actually too high for children.

A study last August by public health experts from St. Louis University in the United States found high levels of other metals in blood taken from adults and children, including arsenic, cadmium, mercury and antimony — a “toxic cocktail,” in the words of Fernando Serrano, who headed the study team. Serrano said that during the week that he spent in La Oroya while the team collected blood samples, his own blood lead level doubled.

Even before Doe Run bought the complex in 1997 from the state-run company Centromin, the smelter had dominated the local economy.

Company denies responsibility
Company executives say they cannot be held responsible for pollution that occurred while the complex was owned by Centromin or the US-run Cerro de Pasco Copper Corp., which built the smelter in 1922. Doe Run has invested in personal and community hygiene programs and street cleaning in La Oroya to reduce the accumulation of dust laden with heavy metals.

Serrano said that such measures are helpful when blood lead levels are relatively low, but that the levels found in La Oroya will not be lowered significantly unless emissions — including “fugitive” emissions that escape from sources other than the plant’s main stack — are reduced.

An air quality study submitted by Doe Run as part of its request for the PAMA extension noted that even controlling emissions may not be enough to reduce blood lead levels to the World Health Organization limit because of lead that has accumulated in the soil.

The town is deeply divided over the issue. Many residents fear that if the company´s request is turned down, Doe Run will close the smelter, resulting in a cascade of unemployment. Doe Run, which employs about 3,000 workers at the smelter, is the largest employer in La Oroya.

Opponents of the PAMA extension are asking the government to declare a health emergency in La Oroya, guaranteeing that the plant can continue working while cleaning up its operations to protect residents´ health, he said.

Some members of the Defense Front of La Oroya Antigua, of which Curi is secretary, are calling for residents of their neighborhood to be relocated, with indemnities paid to those who must move. Curi said that businesses are gradually drifting down the valley to areas where pollution is lower and he worries that La Oroya Antigua, which suffers most from the pollution, will become a ghost town.

“The problem isn’t whether people want to go or not — the problem is who will pay for it,” he said.


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Each day, the smelter sends 900 tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. (Photo: Yolanda Zurita)
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