Facing death threats to fight a new lead poisoning threat in PeruMarch 9th, 2012 | by Keith Slack
The city of La Oroya in Peru’s central Andes region is the home of a giant lead smelting operation run by Doe Run Peru Corporation (DRP), which is part of American billionaire Ira Rennert’s Renco Group. Until it was closed two years ago due to financial problems, the smelter spewed a toxic cloud of smoke directly into the town immediately adjacent to the hulking complex and its 100 foot high smoke stack. The mountains surrounding the town look as if they have been scoured by a giant ball of steel wool and resemble a lunar landscape, the legacy of nearly a hundred years of metals processing with little to no environmental controls.
One study found that at one point more than 90% of children in the city had elevated of lead in their blood, some so high that they should have been immediately hospitalized. These lead levels, which according to recent studies have dropped during the closure period, are set to rise again if, as planned, the smelter resumes operations in May.
Doe Run Peru has now resolved its financial issues. To reopen, it needs the Peruvian Congress to authorize an extension of the environmental remediation commitments (including toxic emissions controlling measures) it made when it purchased the plant from the government in 1997. The company has already successfully obtained three extensions and is pushing hard for another one, arguing that it will fulfill its commitments this time—a claim believed by almost no one in Peru.
Paying a price for pushing back
In response, a coalition of local human rights and environmental groups has launched “La Oroya for a Change.” This public awareness campaign aims to convince Congress not to grant Doe Run an extension unless it makes verifiable commitments to actually address the environmental problems at La Oroya. This hot political topic in Peru has been covered extensively in the press, including recent pieces in Lima’s leading daily El Comercio and foreign news website The Global Post. Pro Doe Run Peru forces have set up a Facebook page attacking the campaign. Most disturbing, campaign leaders including former deputy environment minister Jose de Echave, Bishop Pedro Barreto, and the courageous La Oroya community leader Rosa Amaro, have recently received anonymous death threats for their roles in trying to hold Doe Run Peru accountable.
This is a sadly predictable pattern of events. Several times in recent years activists seeking to clean up La Oroya have been attacked in the press, physically threatened, and two years ago, physically assaulted by pro-DRP thugs.
The company’s role in whipping up these attacks has never been fully established. Still, it’s clear that the company has contributed to an environment in which people think the company condones such attacks. A message splashed across an 100-ft stretch of fence on Doe Run Peru’s property in La Oroya reads “Get out of La Oroya anti-mining NGOs!!” If the company wasn’t interested in intimidating activists, why would it allow that sign to remain there?
Patience runs out
There is some encouraging evidence now that even the most pro-DRP elements in Peruvian society and government have lost patience with this kind of behavior. Last week the coordinating body of Peruvian industry associations (which includes the National Mining and Petroleum Society) stated that Doe Run Peru is “not the kind of company we want in Peru.” And the Peruvian congressman who introduced a bill to grant DRP its environmental remediation extension has now said he might withdraw it. This happened after the company’s move to nullify a previous agreement that had made the government the company’s principal creditor – a move that even Peru’s Ministry of Energy and Mines called “inexplicable.” And this isn’t the only bold-faced attempt the company has made to pressure the government. Last year it filed an $800 million claim under the US-Peru Free Trade Agreement, arguing that it had been treated “unfairly” by the government. For many observers in Peru, these kinds of actions only reinforce their impression that this is a company that will say or do anything to get out of fulfilling its commitments.
The Peruvian Congress will make a decision soon about whether to grant Doe Run Peru’s extension. Hopefully this time they will listen to the voice of the children of La Oroya whose lives are at stake.