Doe Run Asks For Five More Years to Cut Lead Poisoning Among La Oroya's Children

102. 29 February 2004

La Oroya is a mining town some 3,700 metres above sea level in the central sierra, 80 miles east of Lima. A 90 year old treatment and smelting plant dominates the skyline, set against the hills on either side of the town, stripped bare of life. The effect on the quality of air of the smelting plant is immediately obvious, especially for those living and working in the town opposite.

For many years local civil rights groups have had concerns for the health of the community. They have carried out studies, and put pressure on the government to examine not only the air and soil, but also levels of lead in the blood of the local population. A study by the company itself has found that the average lead levels of 1,198 La Oroya residents in 2000 and 2001 were 2.5 times above World Health Organization limits. An earlier report by Peru's Health Ministry determined that 99 percent of children in the area suffered from lead poisoning. The same report indicated that over "18% of the children studied should have been urgently admitted to a hospital for medical attention…"

Lead poisoning has hit children the hardest because they play outside in contaminated dust, and are more likely to put things in their mouths. Lead poisoning can cause behaviour disorders, slow growth, impaired learning, anaemia and kidney damage.

When the US company Doe Run bought the smelting plant in 1997 from the state-owned mining company Centromin, it also took on the responsibility to address environmental issues. As part of the privatisation package, Doe Run committed itself to an Environmental Management and Mitigation Program which promised spending of US$174 million before 2006 to reduce emissions of lead and other toxic metals. Bruce Neil, the head of Doe Run operations, admitted at a press conference in February that Doe Run had in fact spent just US$40 million and stated there was "no way" they could fulfil their obligation. While Mr. Neil acknowledged that lead poisoning of children by the facility's emissions was a serious problem, he also claimed that the company did not have the money to reduce contamination significantly.

The company is asking for an extension of five years to clean up contamination in La Oroya, and is offering to spend a further US$155 million for environmental improvements by 2011. The head of operations said that 1998 was the only year the company made a profit from its operation of the La Oroya smelter, and added that he did not expect it be in the black again until 2006 or 2007.

The Peruvian government has yet to respond to the new proposal put forward by Doe Run, but it is clear that the longer environmental improvements are delayed, the more the health of the people of La Oroya will be affected.

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