These dust particles are so small and water resistant that when you breathe, they pass easily through the mucous membranes, the bloodstream, and biological membranes, making their way to your DNA.
In the case of the main metallurgic complex in Peru, located in the central Andean town of La Oroya, they have accumulated in the air for decades.
Toxicologist Raúl Loayza from Cayetano Heredia University explains the potential damage these fine particles can cause to human beings’ nervous and respiratory systems, and warns of the need to determine how they could harm the villagers who live around the smelting plant.
It didn’t matter who the president was. Nor how much time passed: first ten years, then three, another two, and so on until reaching 18 years of breaches and delays in the environmental commitments of Doe Run Peru— the latest operator of the country’s main metal smelting plant, located in the gray town of La Oroya. The company declared bankruptcy to avoid meeting its obligations, and in September 2014 it benefitted from the reduction of a fine worth millions, thanks to Law 30230.
With Alejandro Toledo as the president, the period to implement the environmental adaptation plan increased. History repeated itself with Alan García, and in July Ollanta Humala approved the Corrective Instrument for Environmental Management (IGAC in Spanish). In theory, this plan will protect the health of villagers and ensure that the environment is managed according to current requirements when the plant passes on to a new operator. Convoca explored this document of over 5,000 pages with the help of environmental engineers, and found that public health has been delayed again for the inhabitants of La Oroya, one of the most polluted towns in the world.
Panoramic view of La Oroya Metallurgical Complex. Materials for the plant’s copper circuit
These dust particles are so small and water resistant that when you breathe, they pass easily through the mucous membranes, the bloodstream, and biological membranes, making their way to your DNA: the molecule that carries a cell’s genetic information. Each fine particle is one hundred times thinner than a human hair; scientific literature classifies them as PM2.5, particles generated in industrial quantities during metal smelting. In the case of the main metallurgic complex in Peru, located in the central Andean town of La Oroya, they have accumulated in the air for decades.
Toxicologist Raúl Loayza from Cayetano Heredia University explains the potential damage these fine particles can cause to human beings’ nervous and respiratory systems, and warns of the need to determine how they could harm the villagers who live around the smelting plant. The decisive plan to protect the health of the inhabitants of La Oroya from harmful elements released by the smelting of copper, zinc, and lead is the plant’s Corrective Instrument for Environmental Management (IGAC), approved last July by the Minister of Energy and Mines. It is a key document because it contains new environmental standards that the plant’s future investor must comply with. After the American company Doe Run Peru went into liquidation for bankruptcy without meeting its environmental obligations, a new investor will be selected by a new administrative body.
With the help of environmental engineers, Convoca reviewed this document, comprised of over 5,000 pages and other annexes in a nine-CD file, and found several critical points in the endless conflict between the villagers, who insist on strict parameters to protect their health, and the workers, who are protesting to get the smelting plant working at 100% capacity and the new owner defined.
In any case, the inventory of environmental and health damage cannot be hidden. The Health Ministry, in agreement with Doe Run Peru, concluded after conducting three hematological censuses between 2004 and 2006 that 90% of the hundreds of children examined in towns neighboring the plant have blood lead concentrations triple the ten micrograms per deciliter limit mandated by the World Health Organization. Lead, which alters the function of neurons and produces respiratory ailments, had marked the lives of hundreds of children even before they were born. Levels of lead in over half the pregnant women examined in these censuses exceeded tolerable amounts. The Blacksmith Institute of New York considered La Oroya one of the ten most polluted towns in the world, together with Chernobyl, which was razed by a nuclear disaster. In 2006 the Constitutional Court ordered the government to take measures to protect the villagers’ health, but they have only been partially completed.
The case of La Oroya does not seem to have an end. Here we will explain why.
Doe Run Peru presented the Corrective Instrument for Environmental Management last May because supreme decree 040-2014 by the sector of Energy and Mines (Minem) required any mining units with expired environmental instruments to comply with new standards set by the Ministry of Environment (Minam). When Doe Run Peru bought the plant in the 90s, it committed to complying with an environmental adaptation program (PAMA) within ten years. In 2006 that period was extended by two years and seven months with a customized rule, in spite of Doe Run Peru’s repeated instances of non-compliance (see timeline since Doe Run Peru purchased the La Oroya complex).
This time, Minem told Convoca, the government of Ollanta Humala created a special ad hoc team to approve the Corrective Instrument for Environmental Management in four months, facing protests by workers who want the immediate sale of the plant. But in this accelerated assessment process Doe Run Peru has proposed several points that delay protecting villagers’ health once again. The first and most controversial one: the new plant operator will have another 14 years to meet the environmental requirements, and will therefore not be sanctioned if it exceeds current parameters for sulfur dioxide generated by metal smelting during that time. Only after 2030 will the inhabitants of La Oroya be able to breathe air compliant with standards — unlike the rest of Peru’s mining enclaves.
The fourteen years were approved in spite of the fact that some of the main processes that the new operator has to modernize, such as the copper circuit — for the main mineral processed in the plant — have already advanced over 50 percent, and some of the equipment that needs to be implemented is already in the plant, as Doe Run Peru reported in a Power Point presentation sent to the Ministry of Energy and Mines last May. This can be seen in pictures accessed by Convoca that were taken barely one week ago.
Minam’s vice minister of Environmental Management, Mariano Castro, told Convoca that the current obligations “are bigger than with the previous operator (Doe Run Peru)” (a new Isasmelt oven for the lead circuit, a gas washing plant, and new pipes to conduct the toxic gases to a chimney on mount Sumi). Minem said by email that the adaptation period was coordinated with the Ministry of Environment and that the projects have been “sequentially ordered” according to technical criteria. The reality is that this is what Doe Run Peru proposed, but not the initial technical recommendation of the Environment sector (see Minem’s responses).
A technical report titled N°426-2015-MINAM/VMGA/DGCA by Minam’s Directorate of Environmental Quality, which was signed on 23 June by specialist Wilder Rojas Ortiz, recommended that the adaptation projects be implemented “previously and/or in parallel, and additionally that speeding up the times to build each project as foreseen in the licensing procedures be considered, with the objective of reducing the period from 14 to 10 years.”
That proposal is in line with one made in 2006 by experts that the World Bank recommended to Minem. The experts’ proposal described simultaneous activities that Doe Run Peru would have to complete in order to comply with the environmental adaptation program (PAMA) when the period was extended by two years and seven months.
Convoca learned that, in reality, the fourteen-year period was approved to support the “financial profitability” of Doe Run Peru, which in its proposal had estimated an investment of 800 million dollars for the projects outlined in the environmental adaptation plan. Curiously, there was a margin of error of 40%, which would make the complex unattractive to any other investor.
These decisions have been influenced by Doe Run Peru’s interests. Convoca proved that the metallurgical engineer Prudencio Rivera Chávez, who had worked for Doe Run Peru, was one of the technicians who approved the company’s IGAC.
The new environmental air quality standard for sulfur dioxide will be complied with in La Oroya starting in 2030. It has a value of 80 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3) per day and not 20 micrograms, as has been required in the rest of the country since January 2014. That’s because operations in Arequipa, Ilo, and La Oroya were exempted from this obligation in 2013.
The vice minister of Environmental Management, Mariano Castro, explained to Convoca that there is a special regime for the air basins in these areas because they “have an accumulated condition” of sulfur dioxide that comes from “transport, the quality of fuels, industrial effluents,” that are additional sources of pollution to the metallurgical complex in La Oroya.
Therefore, in the next fourteen years, the plant will only be required not to exceed the air parameter of 365 micrograms every 24 hours, as approved under the PAMA.
The air breathed by the villagers of La Oroya is of such low quality that even today, with only the plant’s zinc circuit active, the clouds that come out of the chimney allowed the Sindicato station — located 800 meters away from the plant — to register sulfur dioxide levels that exceeded the air quality standard of 80 micrograms per cubic meter per day five times between last July and the first week of September, according to an analysis conducted by Convoca using Doe Run Peru’s monitoring figures (see infographic).
The Corrective Instrument for Environmental Management (IGAC) was approved without asking the company to comply with the air quality standard for PM2.5 fine particles in spite of their harmful effect in the respiratory tract and the fact that the standard has been in force since January 2014, a year and a half before the plan document was approved. The ministry of Energy and Mines responded that they only considered monitoring these particles because the adaptation plan focuses on sulfur dioxide.
The environmental adaptation plan was approved without the benefit of updated health reports or a feasibility study with detailed information on the “modeling of atmospheric dispersion” that would allow any assessment of the magnitude of the air emissions’ impact. In the period for observations about the IGAC, Minem pointed out that the company presented a “pre-feasibility study” that “does not describe real scenarios for the adaptation proposal to meet environmental air quality standards” and justifies this by promising comply with this requirement in the future.
Although the file contains a feasibility study for IGAC, the environmental engineers approached by Convoca highlighted at least a dozen observations about the document. Among them are the lack any studies outlining the cost incurred by each project, the lack of a signature by the specialist from the consulting company, CGT, that conducted the study, and the lack of topographic and risk evaluations for the construction of the new chimney on mount Sumi that will release the smelting gases.
The population center Norman King, La Oroya Antigua, the farming communities of Huari and Huaynacancha, and the population center Marcavalle are close to this hill and would be affected by the new chimney. Convoca interviewed former Huari authorities who confirmed this potential hazard. In addition, the discharge of sulfur dioxide emissions from this hill was determined to be the least effective option by the important Canadian consulting company RWDI in the 90s, when Minem had to approve Doe Run Peru’s environmental adaptation program, because it held high sulfur dioxide concentrations within a radius of “9 kilometers around the area.”
With this background and the critical points of this new environmental adaptation plan on the table, the creditor committee of the La Oroya metallurgical complex will have to find a way to facilitate the sale of the country’s main metal smelting plant without postponing the protection of the villagers’ health in this stricken town.
This article originally appeared in Spanish at Concova.pe. It has been edited by Becky Kessler and posted here with the permission of the authors.
Correction 4/29/16: This article originally used “Doe Run” as a shortened name for the company Doe Run Peru. The U.S.-based Doe Run Company formally owned Doe Run Peru many years ago but today has no affiliation with Doe Run Peru.