- The Washington Times - Monday, February 16, 2004

LA OROYA, Peru — Standing outside his adobe house overlooking the huge American-owned smelter in this small Andean town, Pablo Fabian watches children play beneath a smoke cloud containing toxic lead, sulfur dioxide, cadmium and arsenic.

His hands tremble when he talks about his own children. Two of them are lethargic and have trouble concentrating — symptoms of lead poisoning. Mr. Fabian blames the smelter and is determined to protect his newborn daughter.

No one questions the pollution problem in La Oroya, a bleak, smoke-choked town of 30,000 people wedged into a narrow gorge 12,300 feet high in the thin air of the Andes. But residents feel the owner and Peru’s government aren’t carrying through on promises.

The steep, rocky slopes that hem in the town and trap the smelter fumes are stained yellow from acid rain. The contamination is so strong that visitors’ eyes and throats begin to burn soon after they arrive.

The smelter, which extracts mainly lead, plus eight other metals including copper and zinc from the ore it consumes, is owned by St. Louis-based Doe Run Co. The U.S. government has ordered Doe Run to clean up lead contamination in Herculaneum, Mo., where the company operates America’s biggest lead smelter.

In La Oroya, the company found in a 2000-01 study that average lead levels in the blood of 1,198 residents tested were 2.5 times above World Health Organization limits.

In 1999, Peru’s Health Ministry determined that 99 percent of the children in the area suffered from lead poisoning, with nearly 20 percent in need of urgent hospitalization. But no one was hospitalized.

Lead poisoning can cause behavior disorders, slow growth, impaired learning, anemia and kidney damage. All ages are susceptible, but children tend to be hit harder because they play outside in contaminated dust and are prone to putting things in their mouths.

“The damage is irreversible. We have seen many children who are below average size and who have trouble retaining information,” said Dora Santana, an obstetrician working in La Oroya.

Lead is not the only problem. The California-based Inter-American Association for Environmental Defense says levels of cadmium, arsenic and sulfur dioxide here are also far above WHO safety limits.

Mr. Fabian and others who formed an activist group called Mosao want the government to declare a health emergency.

Congressman Hildebrando Tapia, whose district includes La Oroya, is trying to persuade the legislature to send a high-level commission to find a solution.

“The situation in La Oroya is desperate,” he said, adding that the town lacks specialized medical labs and Health Ministry workers.

Doe Run does not dispute there is a serious environmental problem.

But the company says it will take time to fix a problem that it blames on previous owners, including state-owned Centromin, which ran the 81-year-old smelter from 1974 until Doe Run bought it in 1997.

“This is a historical problem, and we are doing everything we can,” said Jose Mogrovejo, Doe Run’s vice president for environment affairs in Peru.

When Doe Run bought the smelter, it agreed to modernize and bring down emissions to acceptable levels by 2007. After taking over operations, the company stepped up production, pushing the majority of cleanup steps — including smokestack emission reductions — until the end of the period, now three years away.

Many people believe the higher production is worsening the contamination.

“You can taste it. You can see it in the air,” Dr. Santana said. “The environmental damage will be far, far worse by then.”

Since buying the smelter, Doe Run has invested $33.2 million of the $174 million it agreed to spend on environmental cleanup, Mr. Mogrovejo said.

Among initial efforts, the company has improved copper and lead handling methods to cut down on dust and swept streets in town.

Doe Run also initiated a program to teach people how to avoid lead poisoning by, among other things, eating more nutritious diets, bathing more frequently and washing their hands before meals, Mr. Mogrovejo said.

Although the residents of La Oroya see these steps as a good start, they want to see more done.

“Doe Run Peru is cleaning up the streets and that is good, but what about the children who are already sick?” Mr. Fabian said.

Townspeople have met with residents of Herculaneum, where Missouri health officials in 2001 found high levels of lead in the blood of 45 percent of children living near the smelter.

Those findings led to a deal between Doe Run and the Missouri state government requiring the company to offer to buy 160 nearby homes. The buyout, which has yet to be completed, is one factor that may have helped reduce the percentage of children with high levels of lead to 17 percent last year.

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