IMAGE: PERUVIAN TOWN
AP file
Children play in La Oroya, Peru, where the smelter seen in the background is blamed for poisoning locals, especially children.
By
updated 2/9/2004 10:52:56 AM ET 2004-02-09T15:52:56

Standing outside his adobe house overlooking the huge American-owned smelter in this small Andean town, Pablo Fabian watches children play beneath a smoke cloud containing toxic lead, sulfur dioxide, cadmium and arsenic.

His hands tremble when he talks about his own children. Two of them are lethargic and have trouble concentrating, symptoms of lead poisoning. Fabian blames the smelter and is determined to protect his newborn baby girl.

No one questions there is a pollution problem in La Oroya, a bleak, smoke-choked town of 30,000 people wedged into a narrow gorge 12,300 feet high in the thin air of the Andes. But residents feel the owner and Peru’s government aren’t doing enough on promised improvements.

The steep rocky slopes that hem in the town and trap the smelter fumes are stained yellow from acid rain. The contamination is so strong that soon after visitors arrive their eyes and throats begin to burn.

The smelter, which mainly produces lead as well as eight other metals including copper and zinc, is owned by St. Louis-based Doe Run Co. The company has been ordered by the U.S. government to clean up lead contamination in Herculaneum, Mo., where the company operates America’s biggest lead smelter.

Staggering statistics
In La Oroya, the company found in a 2000-01 study that average lead levels in the blood of 1,198 residents tested were 2.5 times above World Health Organization limits.

In 1999, Peru’s Health Ministry determined that 99 percent of the children in the area suffered from lead poisoning, with nearly 20 percent in need of urgent hospitalization. But no one was hospitalized.

Lead poisoning can cause behavior disorders, slow growth, impaired learning, anemia and kidney damage. All ages are susceptible, but children tend to be hit harder because they play outside in contaminated dust and also are prone to putting things in their mouths.

“The damage is irreversible. We have seen many children who are below average size and who have trouble retaining information,” said Dora Santana, an obstetrician working in La Oroya.

Lead is not the only problem. The California-based Inter-American Association for Environmental Defense says levels of cadmium, arsenic and sulfur dioxide here are also far above WHO safety limits.

Fabian and others who formed an activist group called Mosao want the government to declare a health emergency.

Congressman Hildebrando Tapia, whose district includes La Oroya, is trying to persuade the legislature to send a high-level commission to come up with a solution.

“The situation in La Oroya is desperate,” Tapia said, adding that the town lacks specialized medical labs and Health Ministry workers.

Company bought in 1997
Doe Run does not dispute there is a serious environmental problem.

But the company says it will take time to fix a problem that it blames on previous owners, including state-owned Centromin, which ran the 81-year-old smelter from 1974 until Doe Run bought it in 1997.

“This is a historical problem and we are doing everything we can,” said Jose Mogrovejo, Doe Run’s vice president for environment affairs in Peru.

When Doe Run bought the smelter, it agreed to modernize and bring emissions down to acceptable levels by 2007. After taking over operations, the company stepped up production, pushing the majority of clean-up steps — including smokestack emission reductions — until the end of the period, now just three years away.

Many people believe the higher production is worsening the contamination.

“You can taste it. You can see it in the air,” Santana said. “The environmental damage will be far, far worse by then.”

Since buying the smelter, Doe Run has invested $33.2 million of the $174 million it agreed to spend on environmental clean-up, Mogrovejo said.

Among initial efforts, the company has improved copper and lead handling methods to cut down on dust, swept streets in town and — in a bid to improve air quality — planted hundreds of cypress saplings that struggle to grow on a chemical-scorched slope.

Doe Run also launched a program to teach people how to avoid lead poisoning by, among other things, eating a more nutritious diet, bathing more frequently and washing their hands before meals, Mogrovejo said.

Sister cities exchange views
Although the residents of La Oroya see these steps as a good start, they want to see more done.

“Doe Run Peru is cleaning up the streets and that is good, but what about the children who are already sick?” Fabian said.

Townspeople have met with residents of Herculaneum, where Missouri health officials in 2001 found high levels of lead in the blood of 45 percent of children living near the smelter.

Those findings led to a deal between Doe Run and Missouri’s government requiring the company to offer to buy 160 nearby homes. The buyout, which has yet to be completed, is one factor that may have helped drop the percentage of children with high levels of lead to 17 percent last year.

Leslie Warden, a leader in a Herculaneum activist group, visited last year to see Doe Run operations in Peru.

“They have defined a new low in my mind,” she said after her stay in La Oroya.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments