Reduced stringency in air quality controls raises NGO anger

7 May 2017

On 8 April the Ministry of the Environment (MINAM) released draft proposals for reform of air-quality regulation in Peru. These are now under consideration by the congressional committee on the environment, in the midst of a storm of protest and concern about the wisdom of weakening controls.

The level of concern is all the greater, given the association being made between the proposed measures (which significantly weaken certain of the controls, specifically concerning emissions of sulphur dioxide) and the need to find investors for the metallurgical complex at La Oroya in the Junin region. La Oroya has been under administration since last year when the US owners, Renco, withdrew. The Renco Group owns Doe Run, which took over the smelter in 1997. The history is recounted in our newsletter of 10 July, 2016.

The first round of invitation to bid produced no interest. This wariness among investors is no surprise. The horrors of contamination and serious health damage (above all to children) have received much negative publicity, notably when the Blacksmith Institute ranked La Oroya as the fifth most contaminated site in the world in 2006. The Institute is a not-for-profit organisation based in New York, and is now known as Pure Earth.

The focus of the debate is on what are officially described as ‘strict’ Peruvian regulations. In 2013, the norms for 'zones of priority attention' for expansion of mining, which included La Oroya and the smelter at Ilo, were set at a maximum of 80mg/m3 per 24 hours, with a parallel annual limit. This provision remained when the daily maximum for the rest of the country was tightened to 20 mg/m3 in 2014. Moreover, La Oroya was given 14 years to comply with the 80mg/m3 level.

Under the new norm being proposed today, the reopened smelter would only have to observe a maximum of 250 mg/m3 per 24 hours by 2029. And there is a further important issue: the health impact of SO2 emissions is strongly affected by peaks within each 24 hours. In the case of La Oroya, these have been measured at horrifically high levels. This is documented by MINAM itself in a key document 'Preguntas y Respuestas para Entender el Caso de Doe Run'. Dated July 2016, this is a valuable document produced under the previous government and recently removed from the MINAM website. It is available, however, on the Cooperacción website.

An excellent critique of the new proposals was published on 25 April by two non-governmental bodies: Aprodeh (Asociación Pro Derechos Humanos), a leading Peruvian NGO with a strong profile in human rights, and AIDA (Asociacion Interamericana para la Defensa del Ambiente) which covers all of the Americas. This critique makes it clear that the measures do not tackle the hourly impact issue. In addition, the draft has not allowed for adequate consultation or review of the evidence.

The critique also states that the MINAM proposals do not contain the detailed treatment of different contaminants and situations necessary for meaningful regulation. This is something found in other countries' regulations; for instance Chile and the United States are cited. AIDA and Aprodeh, as well as other NGOs (including the Red Muqui, a collective of 29 Peruvian organisations) are challenging the MINAM assertion that there is “no clearly defined link between SO2 and human health”. See, for instance David Hill’s article in The Guardian

The congressional committee will need clear heads and good professional advice to steer their way through this particular minefield.

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