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PERU: Town Polluted by Metals Producer

by  Rick Vecchio Associated Press
April 18th, 2005

LIMA, Peru Environmentalists declared victory Friday after winning a preliminary civil court ruling ordering health officials to alleviate toxic emissions in La Oroya, a bleak, smoke-choked town where U.S.-based Doe Run Co. operates a metallurgical plant.

"After more than two years of a long trial, just recently the sentence was handed down," Carlos Chirinos, a staff attorney with the Peruvian Society for Environmental Law, told The Associated Press. "It is very possible that the Peruvian government will appeal, but we say that it is a very, very important order."

In a decision dated April 7, Judge Rosario Alfaro cited several health studies on the effects of lead, arsenic and cadmium in the town of 30,000 people high in Peru's central Andes.

"These documents conclude that the level of existing minerals in the environment in La Oroya far surpass permissible levels of contaminates in the air," Alfaro wrote.

She ordered the Ministry of Health and the General Directorate for Environmental Health to develop and implement a "public health emergency plan."

Peru's Health Ministry did not respond to AP's requests for comment.

Doe Run Peru is owned by the St. Louis-based Doe Run Co., the largest integrated lead producer in North America. Its Peru facility produces copper, lead, zinc and smaller amounts of gold, silver and other metals. The company agreed to a cleanup program when it purchased the 82-year-old smelter in 1997 from state-owned Centromin, which ran the plant from 1974.

The company has said it doing its best to correct the health problems and has pledged to significantly reduce sulfur dioxide emissions from its stack, as well as work to cut fugitive emissions of lead and other heavy metals that seep through the smelter windows, doors and roofs.

In a 2000-01 study, the company found 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.

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.

A study late last year by the company and health authorities showed that 99.9 percent of nearly 800 children aged six and under living near the smelter had blood lead levels that exceeded international standards.

That study did not examine blood levels of children older than six, the California-based Interamerican Association of Environmental Defense said Friday in a statement.

"Although the health authorities recently announced a medical intervention program to treat the most severely poisoned children in the La Oroya Antigua neighborhood, the proposed program fails to consider harms suffered by the many thousands of other children and adults in the city," the group said.

Last year, the company threatened to pull out of La Oroya if Peru did not grant it a five-year extension to complete environmental upgrades, including construction of a US $100 million (euro77.71 million) sulfuric acid plant by 2007.

The government in December published a decree to allow companies to modify their environmental cleanup programs for "exceptional reasons," and receive specific project extensions for up to four years. Doe Run accepted the terms.




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