March 01, 2007
Peru: Life Under a Toxic Cloud
BY Jon Miller
According to the Blacksmith Institute, La Oroya is one of the world's 10 worst pollution sites. Contaminants include lead, arsenic, cadmium and sulfur dioxide.
Unless you're really hungry or really need to go to the bathroom, La Oroya is the sort of place place you rush through.
You've broken free of Lima's gridlock, labored up the Andean foothills, played chicken with cargo trucks, crept over the frigid pass at Ticlio (elevation 15,807 feet), then descended past a series of gloomy mining settlements and lagoons. An hour ahead lay picturesque mountain villages, and beyond them the green fringe of the upper Amazon. But in La Oroya the Central Highway is swarming with vans, all blowing their horns. A freight train rolls across the road, halting traffic. Queasy from the altitude, you look out the window at the ramshackle factory buildings, at the maze of dark and noisy streets, at the shanties climbing bare white hills, and the last thing you want to do is stop and linger.
But the car-window image sticks with you. At least it did for me. I spent five years in Peru, and passed through La Oroya more than a dozen times. And each time I did I wondered: What on earth would it be like to live here?
I spent five years in Peru, and passed through La Oroya more than a dozen times. And each time I did I wondered: What on earth would it be like to live here?
La Oroya (population about 35,000) is the quintessential company town. Almost everyone there depends directly or indirectly on the giant multimetal smelter and refinery that sprawls across the valley floor. Established in 1922 by an American mining concern, Cerro de Pasco Copper Corporation, the complex has been owned since 1997 by the Missouri-based Doe Run Corporation. It doesn't just dominate La Oroya visually, aurally, and olfactorily, but also economically, politically, and emotionally. That makes most Oroyans tolerant of conditions that elsewhere might lead to open rebellion.
Recent studies show that 99 percent of the children under seven in Old La Oroya (the neighborhood nearest the smelter) have blood lead levels higher than those considered acceptable by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (there is no international standard for lead in the blood). High blood lead has been linked to reduced IQ, hyperactivity, slowed body growth, learning difficulties, and kidney damage, among other problems. Other studies have found dangerously high levels of cadmium, arsenic, and sulfur dioxide in La Oroya's air and soil. In 2006, the Blacksmith Institute, an environmental think tank, rated the town one of the Top Ten World's Worst Polluted Places.
On cool mornings, the exhaust from the smelter appears like fog, and the sound of the smelter can be heard 24 hours a day.
But the people I met there went to great lengths to defend it. The day I arrived, citizens protested in the streets against a government plan for dealing with pollution emergencies. Marchers carried signs calling for visiting officials to be thrown in the river. A scheduled meeting to discuss the plan (which contained provisions such as shutting school windows when atmospheric pollutants reach a certain level) was canceled out of fear that an angry mob might harm the participants. Placards on buildings said, "Down With the Maneuvers of the Anti-Labor NGOs."
Foreign visitors are looked on with suspicion, if not downright hostility. In 2005, researchers from St. Louis University in Missouri were pelted with stones and eggs when they came to take blood samples. I was warned to hide my tape recorder while walking in the streets. One day a local man, apparently drunk, saw me and my traveling companion, Peruvian photographer Santiago Bustamante, taking pictures. The man lunged at Bustamante's camera and tried to wrestle it away from him, shouting at us to leave La Oroya in peace.
I made several visits to the local union hall, whose recent renovation (according to a large sign out front) was paid for by Doe Run. The officers there were reluctant to talk about La Oroya's health and environmental problems. They seemed more concerned that pressure from journalists, NGOs, and government do-gooders might force the company to leave, and take its 3,000 relatively high-paying jobs with it.
Pedro Cordova, a smelter mechanic, suffers from pneumoconiosis, which is related to coalminers' Black Lung Disease.
Doe Run already employs fewer than half the number of people employed by its government-owned predecessor, CENTROMIN. And according to the union leaders, the company is not just downsizing, but gradually replacing native Oroyans in its workforce with single men from other places, who have less of a stake in the town's livability. In any case, the people most affected by the smelter's emissions are not Doe Run workers or their families, who generally have enough money to live beyond the plant's toxic cloud, but the unemployed and marginally employed residents of the squalid hillside shantytowns clustered around the smelter's main stack.
La Oroya may be a company town, but it is not without its dissidents. Miguel Curi, a dental technician from Old La Oroya whose daughter's blood lead is well above the CDC's permissible level, told me that a citizens' group devoted to defending the townspeople's health has about 15 active members. Dr. Hugo Villa, a neurologist at the local social security hospital, has received death threats for his public warnings about the dangers posed by the smelter's emissions. Villa is a soft-spoken man who moved to La Oroya 26 years ago to serve what he saw as an abused and neglected population. His wife and children have long since left for Lima; he lives alone in an apartment in the hospital.
"People here have to choose between two alternatives that aren't really alternatives," he told me. "Do you want life, or do you want work? I think this is presented in a totally irresponsible way. Work is compatible with life if it's dignified and decent."
Pedro Cordova struck an angrier tone. Cordova is a roving mechanic who services the smelter's crushers, sifters, ovens, and other enormous machines. He arrived in La Oroya at about the same time as Villa from a mountain village 30 miles away, where his parents were farmers and weavers. He used to be an athlete, he told me, playing in national soccer tournaments. He also used to love his work. Now he can barely make it through the day. He is weak and often short of breath; he gets headaches and rashes and has lost much of his hearing.
"I've been sentenced to death, and I'm not going to wait until I die to get what I deserve from the company," he told me. "I know two people who have died of lung cancer already."
I met him after work one day in his wife Rosabel's crowded furniture shop. He wore a neat gray sweater and slacks, and spoke with a stentorian formality common among aggrieved peoples in the Andes. A few weeks earlier he had been diagnosed with pneumoconiosis, an incurable ailment related to coalminers' Black Lung Disease, caused by years of inhaling stone dust.
"I've been sentenced to death, and I'm not going to wait until I die to get what I deserve from the company," he told me. "I know two people who have died of lung cancer already.
Many children with high levels of lead in their blood show no outward symptoms. Lead poisoning has been linked with slowed body growth, learning difficulties, and kidney damage, among other problems.
Cordova was taking the company and the government to court; he was also running for city council. He was outraged that the company had gotten so rich on Peruvian minerals while the town remained so poor. "La Oroya is a beggar seated on a golden bench," he said, using an often-quoted line from Peruvian lore. What he really wanted, he told me, is for Doe Run to buy his house, so he and his family can move somewhere else. Doe Run was forced to buy about 160 houses adjacent to its other smelter, in Herculaneum, Missouri, after a long battle with the state. But a buyout doesn't seem to be in the cards in La Oroya.
Neither Cordova nor other critics blame Doe Run for all the town's troubles. The smelter has been pumping out pollutants since the 1920s. When Doe Run bought the complex from the Peruvian government during a privatization drive under then-president Alberto Fujimori, it signed an agreement to reduce emissions to acceptable levels within 10 years. Company officials say they've done almost everything they promised, and many things that they were under no obligation to do, from building public baths and laundry stations to sprucing up the local soup kitchen. But they say they need more time to build a $100 million plant to reduce the sulfur dioxide emissions that sit like fog on the smelter's closest neighbors. In 2006, the Peruvian government grudgingly agreed to give the company three more years to put the plant on line.
The government has hardly been better. As part of the purchase agreement with Doe Run, it took responsibility for cleaning up the pasivos, or toxic legacy, of seven decades of largely unregulated activity. There has been little progress. Contaminated soil remains a major source of poisoning in La Oroya, especially for the poorest children, some of whose bodies so crave micronutrients that they are driven to eat handfuls of dirt.
Neurologist Hugo Villa has received death threats for his public warnings about the health dangers posed by the smelter's emissions.
I spent a day with a company escort, touring the smelter and refineries, where substantial changes have clearly been made to improve worker health and safety. These range from requiring employees to shower and change after work each day to paving the dirt roads between factory buildings to keep down the contaminated dust. (Perhaps the single most important change has been the provision of high-tech respirators for workers, although this came relatively late, and I saw many employees with their masks dangling from their necks.) I also visited some of the health and social programs financed by the company. I was especially impressed by a child care program for roughly 70 local children with extremely high blood lead levels (between 4.5 and 7 times the CDC's acceptable limit of 10 micrograms per liter). The children were bused each day to a gleaming new facility in a village several miles away, where they were fed nutritious meals, taught basic hygiene, and allowed to breathe the clean country air.
I was accompanied on my tour by Dr. Jesus Abel Diaz Matos, a local health ministry official who oversees the public health programs financed by Doe Run. He was hardly anti-company, but he was aware of the limits of Doe Run's largesse. "The measures we're taking are aimed at promoting health by improving hygiene, educating people, encouraging them to improve their behavior," he told me. "But all these plans ultimately depend on the control of emissions by the company itself."
Children play in the streets of Old La Oroya. Public hygiene campaigns financed by Doe Run Corporation have stressed the importance among families of bathing and handwashing.
That's what Dr. Hugo Villa, the neurologist, has been saying for years. "The problem isn't going to be solved with hygiene or vitamins or anything like that, he said. "The problem is the source. If you don't deal with that, the rest is just a diversion." He said he's often accused of trying to shut down the smelter, but it's not true. He just wants the company to invest in modernizing it.
Although there are no reliable numbers, emissions do appear to be decreasing. A Doe Run official told me that the amount of particulate matter spewed by the smelter's main smokestack is down to between one and two tons per day, less than one-fourth of what it was when the company bought the plant. Company physician Roberto Ramos claimed that it took Doe Run 20 years to get blood lead levels down to acceptable levels in Herculaneum. That will happen in La Oroya, too, he said, but not overnight.
The big question is whether the company and the government are doing enough, quickly enough. For critics, it's particularly irksome that metal prices (and Doe Run's profits) have been so high in recent years, and that the owner, Ira Rennert, is one of the richest people in America (his recently completed 29-bedroom, 39-bathroom mansion on Long Island is said to be the largest private house in the country). Peru's government may be strapped, they say, but surely the company could afford to do more.
In the meantime, the people of La Oroya face a stark but long-familiar choice: Turn their backs on a stable source of income, or subject themselves and their families to a barrage of potentially deadly pollutants. Pedro Cordova says for him, leaving is not an option. "I'd like to go somewhere green, where I could farm," he told me. "But I can't afford it. I have to pay for my son's university, and for my younger daughter's studies."
Both children, fittingly, want to be doctors.
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PHOTOS: Santiago Bustamante Mujica
Jon Miller is a veteran radio reporter for NPR, the BBC, and the CBC, among others. He also serves as excecutive director of Homelands Productions, a non-profit journalism cooperative specializing in radio documentaries.
Miller's story is part of a new series called "Working," which began airing on public radio's daily magazine show Marketplace in January. Over the next two years, the show will explore the daily lives of workers in the global economy. A major goal of the series, co-produced with Homelands Productions, is to help Americans understand how their lives are linked to the lives of others around the world through work.