This article was first published in October 2007 in The Progressive.
A U.S.-owned smelter is making people sick in a Peruvian town.
Mercedes Inga Mejia blames the smokestack. First, her three-year-old son died of a rare form of cancer. Then, last year, her eldest daughter passed away at seventeen. She had an abnormally high level of arsenic in her blood. So does Mercedes’s remaining child, Susan, who walks into the nearly empty living room in the family’s house in La Oroya, Peru. Susan shows me mysterious white blotches on her face. Clutching a stack of medical records, Mercedes bursts into tears.
The smokestack belongs to Doe Run Peru, an affiliate of the St. Louis-based Doe Run Resources Corporation. Tall, wide, and set against the backdrop of a pallid mountainside in the central sierra, the smelter sits less than a half mile from La Oroya’s Old Town, on the banks of the Mantaro River. The smelter processes lead, copper, and zinc extracted from mines in the mineral-rich mountains nearby. The smokestack pumps lead, arsenic, and sulfur dioxide-filled gases into the air. Some mornings, when cold temperatures trap its discharge in the valley, white smoke engulfs the entire town. The smoke inflames eyes and burns throats. Chronic coughs and head aches return. People try to stay inside, and those who can’t cover their mouths with scarves and sweaters.
Last year, the level of lead in La Oroya’s air was more than six times higher than international air quality standards, according to Peru’s ministry of health. Nearly all children under six years of age in La Oroya Antigua had blood lead levels above ten micrograms per deciliter of blood, the acceptable limit set by the World Health Organization. The effects of lead exposure range from headaches and learning impairment to seizures, comas, and death. Children are most susceptible. The Blacksmith Institute, a New York-based environmental advocacy group, has deemed La Oroya one of the world’s ten most-polluted places, a list that includes Chernobyl.
“What do I do? They’re a rich, multimillionaire company, and I’m a poor woman,” Mercedes says. “Four hundred workers wanted to burn my house. They threatened to disappear my daughter, to kill my husband. The whole town asked me why I hated the company. For going out and telling the truth about my children, they’ve threatened me with death.”
There is no united front of residents turning against Doe Run. The city of 35,000 is poor, and the majority of people are directly or indirectly dependent on the smelter for their paychecks. This dynamic pits staunch supporters of the company, who are afraid that they will lose their jobs if they speak out, against those willing to admit they are fed up with their contaminated lives.
I seek out Mercedes’s cousin who lives across town. Rocio Guadalupe Mejia, who leads the community group Mercedes says threatened her, does not invite me into her house. Instead, we sit on a concrete bench facing the Old Town’s main plaza. She calls Mercedes a “liar” and insists her daughter’s death was caused by a simple skin disease rather than by lead poisoning.
She says it’s unrtue that the smokestack still causes health problems. Children like her own son, she says, who once had high a blood-lead level, are lowering their levels through hygiene and nutrition programs sponsored by Doe Run. Rocio’s daughter is at the top of her third grade class, she is proud to report. “We don’t have sick children here,” she says.
Company employees are split on the issue. On a crisp Sunday afternoon, I spot dozens of local men who are crossing a wooden pedestrian bridge connecting Old Town with the smelter. They are wearing heavy leather and polyester jackets atop wool sweaters and collared shirts, paired with jeans or faded slacks and black leather shoes. Some sport Doe Run baseball caps. Most are rushing to punch in their timecard. Others stop to talk.
Oved Javier is an eighteen-year veteran at the plant who works in a unit that distributes water and vapor to the smelter. He has nothing but praise for Doe Run. He assures me that his three kids are healthy even though they have never had their blood-lead levels measured.
Soon, several union men gather around me and speak about what seems an altogether different company. Sosimo Galarza Vivanco, fifty-two, was one of over 300 workers dismissed by Doe Run in 2002. He says he was laid off for criticizing the company, but has since found his way back. Contamination is still the norm, he says. “What they are interested in is production, but without expenses, without cost.” When I ask him why other workers, like Javier, applaud Doe Run, he says, “They are afraid of complaining because if they complain they are kicked out the next day.”
The smelter is responsible for nearly a century of contamination in La Oroya. The now-defunct U.S. firm Cerro de Pasco Corporation opened the smelter in 1922. The state-run Centromin Peru took it over in the 1970s. Doe Run inherited its dirty legacy when it bought the complex in 1997. But Doe Run was also already well-known for pollution. At the time, it was under pressure at home for lead contamination from its smelter in Herculaneum, Missouri. Doe Run’s owner, a conglomerate called Renco Corp run by New York billionaire Ira Rennert, then saw another one of its companies sued by the U.S. Justice Department for dumping hazardous waste. Rennert himself is best known for his mansion in the Hamptons, the largest occupied residence in the U.S.
Doe Run tries to be a good corporate citizen in La Oroya. It has refurbished schools and planted trees. Cleaning crews sponsored by Doe Run and managed by the ministry of health bathe the concrete of every street in Old Town three times a week. When I catch up with a squad one morning, a dozen men donning orange fluorescent construction hats are lathering up a basketball court and a steep street flanked by vendors. Using thick-bristled brooms, they scrub the cement with chemical detergent and then rinse it off with a red hose connected to a large water truck. Used to the ritual, residents walk right past the soapy sidewalks. Women even grab brooms to sweep their own doorsteps.
Some residents say that since the street-cleaning campaign began, lead-filled powder no longer collects in the streets. Doe Run supporters also praise company-sponsored and government-run efforts to teach children to wash their hands—an attempt to reduce the odds of ingesting lead—as well as a day care program that busses some ninety children with high blood-lead levels away from La Oroya Antigua for eight hours a day.
But these are merely palliative measures. A 2005 report on La Oroya conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said programs like these wouldn’t do much good for children’s blood-lead levels unless emissions were reduced. “Public health education and hygiene efforts alone are of little benefit in reducing elevated blood levels,” the report says. Dr. Jesus Diaz, director of the ministry of health and Doe Run’s health care center in La Oroya, agrees. “The principal activity that has to be done in La Oroya is the control of emissions,” he tells me in his office.
Kaimer Dolmos, Doe Run’s upbeat public relations director in La Oroya, lauds the company’s efforts to clean up operations. Dolmos says Doe Run’s concern for the community is so esteemed that other Peruvian companies are imitating its social programs.
Even my forgetting to put on my seat belt is a chance for him to show me how safety conscious the company is. Asking me to buckle up, Dolmos tells me that a company campaign to raise awareness for seat belts has been embraced not just in La Oroya, but in all of Peru. “Why is the sacrifice made?” Dolmos asks. “Because we don’t want to harm the population. Health is first.”
After making the curvy four-hour trek down the mountain road that services La Oroya, I meet with Doe Run Peru’s chief spokesman, Victor Andres Belaunde, on the ninth floor of a tower in a Lima business district. I ask him in his wood-paneled office if he can acknowledge that company operations could be responsible for the health problems in La Oroya. “I cannot recognize that,” he replies. I repeat my question three more times and get the same answer. It is the previous owners’ lack of environmental concern that is the “one central issue which is the main source of contamination,” Belaunde says.
The government’s lack of comprehensive health studies on La Oroya makes it impossible to analyze the health effects of the smelter. The ministry of health’s commitment to the contamination problem is halfhearted, says Dr. Hugo Villa, a neurologist in La Oroya. Doe Run and the ministry of health say extensive tests conducted in Lima found no illnesses in twenty-five children from La Oroya who had high blood-lead levels. But Villa says those tests aren’t enough to prove anything. The government has not invested in qualified doctors or the epidemiological and statistical studies necessary to establish a direct link between the company’s emissions and the public health crisis.
But a research team from St. Louis University’s School of Public Health, which conducted a study in La Oroya in 2005, issued a damning report last year. It said that, “the evidence of elevated levels of lead, cadmium, arsenic and other toxic metals in the bodies of residents in study sites indicate that there is an extremely serious environmental heath crisis affecting La Oroya, especially vulnerable populations such as young children.”
As for the source of contamination itself, Doe Run claims that it has cut lead emissions by one-third since the start of this year, charting a course towards compliance with national standards. To its credit, the company says it has so far invested $116 million on environmental upgrades and appears to have completed most of the reforms stipulated in A ten-year cleanup plan required by the government—although the state has yet to release an audit on those developments. They include a new water treatment plant and the enclosing of the lead refinery to reduce emissions.
But, as it turns out, the upgrade that would cut dangerous emissions the most—a new sulfuric acid plant that would capture poisonous sulfur dioxide before it wafts onto the population—is the one commitment Doe Run has not lived up to. The company has upgraded one such plant, but has not yet built two new ones it has promised. It requested an extension from the ministry to do so, and got it in late 2004. That prompted Maria Chappuis, who was general director of mining at the energy and mines Ministry, to resign. Reached by phone at her home, she responds to Doe Run’s argument that it has completed most of the upgrades. “If I marry a man who said he hit his ex-wife three times a day and HE only hits me once a day—at breakfast—is it good? Doe Run knows perfectly well that they would be shut down if they were in the U.S.”
The government may also be letting Doe Run off the hook with lax audits, says Eliana Ames, legal advisor to congresswoman Gloria Ramos, who is urging President Alan Garcia to make the health situation in La Oroya a priority. Ames says government studies of air quality in La Oroya, designed to be a check on the company’s own numbers, are not independent because Doe Run itself pays for the tests. And she says the ministry of energy has little incentive to hold Doe Run accountable because it is also in charge of promoting private investment.
On my tour of the smelter, I am only shown the three areas where upgrades have occurred, even though I have asked to see more. When we near the zinc refinery’s upgraded sulfuric acid plant, I am suddenly overcome with a smell so noxious I have to strap on a company gas mask. Wilver Delgado, the engineer who is accompanying me, also grabs his mask, which has been dangling around his neck, and holds it up to his face. “There must still be a gas leak,” he says.
JENS ERIK GOULD
Jens Erik Gould is a political, business and entertainment writer and editor who has reported from a dozen countries for media outlets including The New York Times, National Public Radio and Bloomberg News.