MAC: Mines and Communities

Doe Run Smelter Poisons Peru Town-residents

Published by MAC on 2005-05-25
Source: Planet Ark

Doe Run Smelter Poisons Peru Town-Residents

Planet Ark, Story by Robin Emmott

May 25, 2005

La Oroya, Peru - Yellow plumes of sulfur and dust sting Gina Jara's eyes as she plays in the streets around La Oroya's US-owned metals smelter, blamed by community groups for poisoning residents with its toxic gases.

Eight years after The Doe Run Co. took over the smelter, one of the world's biggest, doctors, nongovernmental organizations and worried parents say the company has not done enough to cut harmful blood lead levels that can cause serious illnesses ranging from lung cancer to paralysis.

"My throat burns, my eyes sting. It's the smoke," said Gina, 10, pointing to the chimney that billows fumes over the impoverished town of 35,000 people in Peru's central Andes.

When Missouri-based Doe Run took over the state-run operations in 1997, many hoped it would quickly overhaul the smelter and clean up La Oroya, Peru's dirtiest mining town.

Since then, Doe Run has spent $78 million on modernization and by 2006 it will have invested $94 million in meeting government environmental norms. Waste is no longer dumped into the rivers, workers' blood levels have fallen by a third and harmful sulfur dioxide emissions are down by 20 percent.

But a recent study by Doe Run and Peru's Health Ministry showed 99.9 percent of children up to age six in La Oroya have abnormally high blood lead levels. Eighty-two percent of the 788 children tested have levels between two and four times what the World Health Organization (WHO) considers normal.

Gina, who has rashes on her arms that her mother says are from the smelter gases, complains of a lack of appetite and dizziness. Her blood lead level, at 23 micrograms per deciliter, is double safe WHO levels.

Adults are also at risk, said La Oroya doctor Hugo Villa. "One smelter worker I treat has lost control of his right hand. He suffers from paralysis and the cause is lead poisoning," said Villa.

SLow Solutions

Doe Run says it is doing all it can to modernize the aging, blackened smelter, which was built in 1922 without any thought to the environment.

Government nationalization of the operations in 1974 brought no improvement. The surrounding hillsides are burned bare by acid rain linked to the smelter.

"Health is our top priority now. We'll make significant progress in reducing emissions (that leak out of roofs and doors at the smelter) by December 2006," said Juan Huyhua, head of operations at La Oroya.

But the smelter, which processes 10 metals including copper and silver, still churns out 792 tonnes of sulfur dioxide a day, more than four times Peru's legal limit.

Indeed, community groups say that for all Doe Run's investments, it has not tackled the main problems of lead, sulfur and dust emissions.

The company was required by law to build a sulfuric acid plant at a cost of $100 million that, along with other modernization, would capture all toxic gases and end lead pollution by 2007.

But Doe Run, which has a high-interest debt load of $219 million owed to bondholders in the United States, last year said it needed until 2011 because the acid plant had to come after the emission leakages problem was resolved. Without the extension it would default on bank loans and be forced to pull out of Peru.

Jobs Versus Pollution

Because the company is the only big employer in the isolated region, Doe Run's 4,700 workers support the operations despite the health risks. Last December, they rallied to pressure the government to grant Doe Run until 2010.

"It's not that we defend Doe Run. We defend the smelter because it is our source of income," said engineer Jose Macassi, who has worked at the smelter since 1980.

But community groups say Doe Run has ducked its responsibilities. They are angry that the company pleaded poverty when the company's owner, US investor Ira Rennert, has built one of the largest residential compounds in the United States, in Southampton, New York, a coastal resort community of the very wealthy.

Indeed, Rennert has received a great deal of negative media attention, pointing to a track record of buying pollution-troubled companies cheaply, leveraging them up with junk bonds against the assets and earning profits.

"They said the gases would stop in 2007. Now they are saying 2010. That's more generations of sick children," said Dora Santana of health association Filomena Tomaira.

Doe Run says it will complete the acid plant early. "We feel confident it will be operating by 2009," said Huyhua. "Canada's Fleck Chemical Industries Inc is designing the acid plant and we hope to open the bidding process for the plant's construction next year," he added.

Doe Run says the money will come from recycling zinc ferrites to produce indium, which is used in flat screen televisions, generating $50 million over the next 2-1/2 years.

A switch to natural gas at the smelter could save $2.5 million a year from 2008. Doe Run can also count on millions of dollars in annual cash flow at La Oroya for the next five years, as Chinese demand for copper boosts metal prices.

"I'm not sure I believe them. All we ask is that Doe Run keeps its promises," said Ena Rojas, 32, whose 8-year-old daughter has chronic diarrhea that doctors blame on lead poisoning.

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