Health or economic development?  La Oroya, a mining town in Peru at the crossroads

Health or economic development? La Oroya, a mining town in Peru at the crossroads

The vast majority of the population has been waiting for some time and hopes for the reactivation“of the La Oroya foundry,”because it is the source of life, of the economyHugo Enrique, a 48-year-old Peruvian taxi driver, told AFP.

Since the 2009 bankruptcy of the 19,000-hectare metallurgical complex that attracted the city built around it, there have been many vacant shops and abandoned houses in this conglomeration of 33,000 inhabitants built into the side of a hill 3,750 meters above sea level on the ‘Altiplano.

For nearly a century, the foundry and its enormous black cathedral chimney have worked copper, zinc, lead, silver, gold, bismuth, indium, tellurium, antimony or selenium from nearby mines. But at what cost.

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Abnormally high levels of lead, arsenic and cadmium in the blood

We have become accustomed to this lifestyle, surrounded by smoke and toxic gases, but at the time we did not know the seriousness of these pollutants.‘, Manuel Enrique Apolinario, a 68-year-old teacher who has lived since 1975 in a brick and wood house opposite the entrance to the foundry, told AFP.Those who have lived here have been ill all their lives, colds, bronchitis, especially respiratory problems“, he assures, showing blood tests that reveal abnormally high levels of lead, arsenic and cadmium.

According to the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), in 2013 almost all (98%) children aged 6 months to 12 years had high blood lead levels.

In business since 1922, the foundry was nationalized in 1974 then privatized in 1997 and taken over by Doe Run, owned by the American group Renco. In June 2009, Doe Run had to cease operations for failing to comply with an environmental protection program and filed for insolvency.

Thirteen years later, La Oroya would like to try to regain its glorious economic past under the leadership of its new owners, 1,270 former Doe Run employees, who promise that their business will not be polluting. “We will operate with the consent of the population, with social and environmental responsibility“, Luis Mantari, head of logistics in the new organization chart, told AFP.

It is a unique complex. What we want as workers is for it to last another 100 years“, adds José Aguilar, human resources manager. About 14 million tons of copper and lead waste or slag are stored on the site awaiting reconversion.

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I have fought against pollution, but we have never opposed the running of the company. We want him to go away but with an environmental protection plan, and if possible that the company be put under glass‘Pablo Fabian Martinez, 67, who is one of the first residents of the industrial site, told AFP.’I wish it would reopen because without the company there is no possible economy in Oroya“says Rosa Vilchez, a 30-year-old shopkeeper whose husband is looking for work in nearby villages.

Second most polluted city in the world in 2011

In 2011, La Oroya was still the second most polluted city in the world, two years later it had dropped to fifth place, according to the Blacksmith Institute. Oroya was then confronted with Chernobyl and its 1986 nuclear disaster or the Dzerjinsk chemical waste dump in Russia.

But since the smelter’s closure, concentrations of toxic gases have dropped significantly, environmental groups say. A group of La Oroya residents attacked the Peruvian state in 2006 before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) for failing to protect their right to health by controlling high levels of contamination, and the court just started its hearings in October.

However, the director of CooperAccion, a Peruvian social and environmental rights NGO, José de Echave, believes that if “workers’ expectations are legitimate (…) at this stage it is not possible to foster employment at the cost of a strong impact on employment ecosystems“.

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We are aware that the metallurgical complex is a source of employment. We do not deny it, but it must respect the health of the population“Yolanda Zurita, a member of the La Oroya Health Movement, which plants trees around the city to absorb pollution residues, told AFP.

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