La Oroya, Peru: Poisoned town

By Anna Kramer
Local leader Rosa Amaro is helping others in La Oroya, Peru, speak out about the damaging effects of the Doe Run lead smelter. Photo: Cecilia Niezen/Oxfam America

Share this story:

When a metal refining company called Doe Run Peru (part of the US-owned Renco Group) purchased a lead smelter in the small mountain town of La Oroya, Peru, in 1997, it agreed to improve the facility to make it less harmful for the environment. Instead, the company allowed toxic elements used in the smelting process to contaminate La Oroya’s air, water, and soil. That pollution contributed to  health problems, like lead poisoning, that particularly affect local children.

After the Peruvian government cited Doe Run Peru for environmental violations, the company closed the smelter in 2009, citing the high cost of complying with the government’s requirements for cleanup. In April 2011, Doe Run Peru’s parent company Renco Group filed a lawsuit against Peru, claiming its actions violated the US-Peru Free Trade Agreement.

With the case now due to go to international arbitration, the multi-billion-dollar Renco Group is lobbying the US government for support. At the same time, Oxfam and partners are calling on Congress to make sure that Doe Run doesn’t abandon its commitments to the community where it did business for more than a decade.

“Renco Group has money, power, and influence on Capitol Hill,” said Keith Slack, manager of Oxfam America’s Right to Know, Right to Decide campaign. “The people of La Oroya don’t. But they have an equal right to make their voices heard.”

Fighting a double standard

Oxfam America’s oil, gas, and mining program has been working with partner organizations in La Oroya since 2000. Their efforts around the current case are twofold:

  • In Peru, they are calling on the government to stand firm on its environmental concerns and not negotiate any back-room deals with Doe Run.
  • In the US, they are asking Congress to hold Renco Group and Doe Run Peru to their promises, including fully paying for cleanup of the polluted town and funding health programs for affected residents.

Slack compared La Oroya to Herculaneum, Missouri, where the US-based branch of Doe Run operates a lead smelter. After millions of dollars in environmental fines and multiple lawsuits that helped set stricter US standards for lead pollution, Doe Run has said it will close the Herculaneum smelter in 2013 and explore opening a new  earth-friendly facility.

“This is a company with a clear double standard, since the health situation in Peru is even worse than it was Missouri,” said Slack. “If [La Oroya] was in our own backyard, we wouldn’t allow this to happen.”

Children’s health at risk

Rosa Amaro’s family has lived in for generations in La Oroya Antigua—the neighborhood directly across the river from the smelter and one of the worst affected by pollution. In 2002, Amaro and her children participated in a study conducted by Peru’s Ministry of Health. The tests showed that her older son, then age 8, had 58 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood. (The US Center for Disease Control recommends medical action at anything above 10 micrograms per deciliter.) Now 17, he suffers from gastritis and severe pain requiring repeated trips to the hospital.

Amaro’s family also participated in a 2005 St. Louis University study, which not only detected elevated lead levels in children, but also found that residents had above-normal levels of cadmium, arsenic, and antimony. These toxic elements are associated with cancer, kidney failure, and other medical problems.

After their children tested positive for lead in 2002, Amaro and other concerned parents formed a grassroots group called the Movement for the Health of La Oroya (MOSAO). “[We want] to spread information about what’s going on,” said Amaro. “Children in Peru and in the US have the same right to live in a healthy environment, and their parents have a right to dignified work.”

The issue of work has divided La Oroya, where some say closing the smelter permanently would take away most of the town’s jobs. For participating in the health studies and publicly speaking out against the company, Amaro has faced harassment and repeated threats of violence. Even so, she recently visited the US for an Oxfam speaking tour with other women from mining-affected areas.

Whether or not the smelter reopens, said Amaro, Doe Run Peru must still meet its environmental and social obligations to the community. “The ground is totally polluted by heavy metals,” she said. “It’s not only the government’s responsibility to clean up the mess, but also that of the company, which has been operating here for so many years.”

Meanwhile, in a neighborhood where residents once had trouble breathing outdoors, the last two years have brought a measure of relief.

“You don’t feel the chemical fumes in the air, and you can even see some green coming out of the ground,” said Amaro. “We would love it if it would remain the way it is right now.”

Take action: Tell Congress to stand with the people of La Oroya and hold the company accountable.