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Town built on lead weighs the fallout

A U.S.-owned smelter in Peru provides jobs. But its emissions are said to cause illnesses and harm children's development.

June 18, 2007|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

LA OROYA, PERU — Angel Jesus Pacotaype is a child of lead, one of hundreds of youngsters in this Andean town suffering from what a U.S. health study has labeled an "epidemic" of exposure to the toxic metal. The 3-year-old is lethargic and exhibits signs of sluggish development, classic symptoms of lead poisoning.

"We are desperate," said Luisa Pacotaype, 39, a mother of five who lives with her family in an adobe house in the old part of town, La Oroya Antigua. "We don't know who to turn to."

Looming just across the sullied Mantaro River is the poison's apparent source: La Oroya's 85-year-old smelter complex, its smokestack a dark sentinel in the mountain sky.

The facility is at the center of a bitter environmental dispute that pits townsfolk against townsfolk and activists against the smelter's owner, Doe Run Peru, an affiliate of the St. Louis-based Doe Run Resources Corp.

In the process, isolated La Oroya has become the unlikely setting for a fiercely polarizing struggle over U.S. corporate responsibility in the Third World.

On the twisting streets of the Old Town, air laced with sulfur dioxide spewing from the smokestack irritates the eyes, befouls the mouth and stings the lungs. Fine dust coats furniture and clothes, residents say.

In 2006, the Blacksmith Institute, a New York-based environmental advocacy group, named La Oroya among the world's 10 most-polluted places, a list that includes Chernobyl, Ukraine.

This is a community where parents recite their children's blood-lead readings the way moms and dads elsewhere recall their kids' birthdays.

"They said Angel's lead level was close to 50, but we fear it may be higher," said his father, Mariano Pacotaype. In children, a measurement one-fifth of Angel's, 10 micrograms a deciliter, is considered elevated by the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Officials at Doe Run acknowledge that almost every child tested in the Old Town has a blood-lead reading at least double that level.

Peruvian and U.S. activists allege that the smelter's daily release of lead, arsenic and other toxic substances has stunted childhood development and caused an array of illnesses, including cancer. A St. Louis University research team said La Oroya faces a "daily toxic cocktail" and labeled the situation "an environmental health crisis."

However, epidemiological and statistical studies definitively linking the emissions to illness are lacking.

"The scientific research needed to demonstrate beyond doubt that Doe Run's pollution is making people sick costs money, and people in La Oroya don't have that," said Hunter Farrell, a U.S. Presbyterian minister in Lima, the Peruvian capital, who has taken up the cause.

Doe Run officials say emissions are down and have never been shown to have harmed anyone. "I am not aware of any case of serious illness that may be attributed to our La Oroya operations," said spokesman Victor Andres Belaunde.

Critics say Doe Run's repeated threats to shutter the plant and leave more than 3,000 employees jobless have intimidated Peru's government.

"Doe Run basically does what it wants here," said Mayor Cesar A. Gutierrez Revilla, a former chemical engineer at the plant who won office this year pledging to stand up to Doe Run.

Doe Run officials deny bullying anyone. And many residents support the plant because it drives the economy.

"The smelter is needed here," said Rocio Guadalupe Mejia, 31, a mother of two who heads a community group backed by Doe Run. "There would be no La Oroya without the smelter."

In March, a complaint was filed with the Washington-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights demanding "urgent measures" to control pollution.

A bleak terrain

The landscape from the coast up to La Oroya transforms like a series of film cuts: from the drab brown of the arid coastal plain to the pines and rushing streams of the temperate heights and up to snowy Andean passes, inhospitable even to the hardy llama.

But humans have left their mark. Gaping incisions mar hillsides and valleys. Runoff feeds lagoons of garish ochre and vermillion hues.

This is mining country. The veins that drew the Spanish now attract multinational firms, providing a mixed blessing for generations of Peruvians, mostly of indigenous stock.

La Oroya, is a cheerless settlement of 35,000 more than two miles above sea level, dominated by the smokestack, its plume raining emissions on the town and surrounding mountains. The adjacent limestone hillsides are stripped of vegetation. Few homes in the Old Town, founded to house smelter workers, have indoor plumbing.

Vast quantities of mined "concentrates" arrive daily via train and truck, and are cooked to separate lead, copper, zinc, cadmium and other ore, including silver and gold. Most is exported, the lead used in car and transformer batteries and electronics components.

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