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Mexican Lead Plant Restrictions Ordered

May 22, 1999|JAMES F. SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — The government Friday ordered Mexico's largest lead and silver smelting complex to slash output and cut smokestack emissions by 52% to reduce the danger of lead contamination in children who live near the plant.

The national environmental attorney general's office ordered the production cuts after monitors found that lead levels in the air around the Met-Mex Penoles plant in the northern city of Torreon still exceeded the permitted lead content standard.

The plant became the focus of national attention this month after the discovery of high lead levels in children in a neighborhood adjacent to the facility.

State health officials have said that, out of 2,850 children tested in recent weeks, 2,535 were found to have lead above 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood, the U.S. level of health concern. Of those, 525 were tested at between 40 micrograms and 69 micrograms per deciliter, levels that can cause damage to the kidneys and nervous system.

Activists have called the Penoles case an example of persistent neglect of environmental health threats in Mexico. At the same time, they see the current remedial actions as a potential example of how the government and industry should cooperate to halt and repair environmental damage.

The company Friday night characterized the tightened restrictions as an opportunity to accelerate the cleanup measures, saying it "shares the concern of the population." The firm did not say how much production would be lost as a result of the additional restrictions, or whether the jobs of any of the 2,100 full-time employees would be affected.

The prosecutor's office said Penoles had made substantial progress in reducing emissions and cleaning up the area since an initial order was imposed May 5. That ruling called for production cuts of about 25% to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide and other cleanup steps. In addition, Penoles agreed to buy 394 houses in a 12.5-acre neighborhood next to the plant and remove all soil contaminated by decades of emissions from the factory.

Penoles also has set up a $6.6-million trust fund to pay for health care for the affected children. In recent weeks, the prosecutor said, the company has scooped up 120 tons of lead-contaminated soil from neighboring residential areas.

The prosecutor's office said that, although the company has brought sulfur dioxide emissions within permitted standards, lead measurements in the air near the plant remain above the limits.

"Additionally, the presence of zinc, cadmium and arsenic also have been detected in the soil, which is being evaluated in terms of its effects on the health of the population," the statement said.

The plant is the world's largest silver factory and the fourth-largest lead producer, as well as Latin America's largest processor of gold, bismuth and zinc. With $771 million in sales in 1998 and 970 local suppliers and contractors, Penoles has been the economic heart of this desert city since the factory opened in 1901.

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