MAC/20: Mines and Communities

PERU: "A toxic bargain"

Published by MAC on 2006-03-06

PERU: "A toxic bargain"

by St Louis Despatch

6th March 6 2006

"About 18,000 children live in the mountain town of La Oroya, Peru. Virtually every one of them is lead poisoned -- by a St. Louis company.

Nearly three-quarters of La Oroya's children have lead levels that are two to four times what would be considered poisonous, a recent study by researchers from St. Louis University found. Lead poisoning puts them at risk of brain damage, developmental problems, colic, anemia and kidney disease.

The lead comes from a smelter owned by Doe Run Resources Group of Maryland Heights. It pumps about two tons of lead into the thin mountain air every day. Each year, it discharges roughly 32 tons of lead, 36 tons of poisonous arsenic and 69,000 tons of the toxic metal cadmium into the nearby Mantaro River.

When the St. Louis University researchers visited Peru last year, they compared children's blood lead levels in La Oroya to those in the town of Concepcion, about 70 miles down river. About one in five children in Concepcion was also lead-poisoned, most likely from lead dumped into the river or air. La Oroya residents also had cadmium levels three times the U.S. average and arsenic levels twice as high as those in residents of Concepcion.

When Doe Run bought the La Oroya smelter in 1997, it agreed to clean up contamination at the site and meet Peruvian emission standards.

Things have gotten marginally better: Average blood lead levels in workers at the smelter have declined, although they remain more than three times the level of concern. Emissions of deadly pollutants have dropped. But piles of lead waste (slag) remain uncovered, so the wind carries lead into the community. Last year, smelter smokestack lead emissions were 24 percent higher than Peruvian law allows.

A report released last year by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the most important thing that could be done for La Oroya's children is to stop pumping lead into the air and water. Until that's done, nothing can prevent the continued poisoning of these children -- and any more children born there.

As it has in Missouri for decades, Doe Run is slow-dancing with regulators. It asked for and got two extensions to meet Peruvian emissions standards. Now it wants a third, which the Peruvian government rejected last month. The company has until mid-March to respond.

Doe Run has threatened to pull out of Peru if it is forced to meet those standards. Since it is by far the largest employer in La Oroya, that threat triggered riots in which people were killed.

Doe Run made the same threat in Herculaneum when federal and state regulators finally cracked down for consistently exceeding U.S. emission standards, poisoning children and fouling surrounding homes and roads with lead dust. In 2001, testing showed that 28 percent of children living near the Missouri smelter were lead poisoned.

Eventually, Doe Run met U.S. emission standards.

But at the same time it was cutting emissions here, it was ramping them up in Peru. Between 2002 and 2004, lead emissions through the main smokestack at La Oroya increased by 33 percent.

Like all good parents, the people of La Oroya want decent jobs and good health. What Doe Run has given them instead is a toxic bargain: In exchange for the sweat and toil that have created its wealth, Doe Run has poisoned the sky, the land and the water -- and the thousands of little ones of La Oroya."

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