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U.S. mining companies leave lasting trail of contamination across Peru

Copper extraction by Southern Copper has contaminated the air. Image by Roberth Orihuela.

  • Mines operated by U.S. companies in Peru have for decades caused pollution that has affected local communities and ecosystems.
  • In the Tacna and Moquegua regions, Southern Copper dumped 785 million metric tons of mining waste in Ite Bay, damaging a critical fishing area.
  • In Arequipa, a surge in output at Freeport-McMoRan’s Cerro Verde copper mine has been accompanied by dozens of fines, mostly for dust in the air that has sickened nearby communities.
  • Dust is also a persistent problem at The Mosaic Company’s Miski Mayo phosphate mine, where it’s been blamed for killing off livestock pasture and native carob trees.

This story has been supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

Carrying a shovel on her shoulder, Nely Flores walks quickly on the beach. “Before the guards from the mine come and cause problems for us,” she says. She soon stops: “There’s the wetland, and here, only 20 meters away, we can see that the tailings are still out here, polluting the sea and all of the species that live in this area.”

Flores picks up her shovel and begins digging. She digs up a heap of sand mixed with reddish-orange soil. It’s just a minuscule fraction of the 785 million metric tons of mining waste that the mining company Southern Copper tossed into Ite Bay for more than 35 years, damaging a critical fishing area on Peru’s southwestern coast.

For the residents of Ite, mining has brought nothing but tragedy. In other Peruvian cities where U.S.-funded mining companies also operate, many residents fear a similar fate. In Arequipa, reports from environmental and health authorities warn that the Cerro Verde copper mine, run by Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc., is polluting the air and the subsoil. In the northern region of Piura, pollution from the Miski Mayo phosphate mine, run by The Mosaic Company which then sells the product to the Brazilian market, is affecting nearby populations and the area’s artisanal fishing industry.

Southern Copper’s heavy metal cocktail

Some 60 years ago, Southern Copper established its Toquepala and Cuajone mines, in the regions of Tacna and Moquegua, respectively. Several reports show that the company, registered in the U.S. state of Delaware, a tax haven, has dumped 119,000 metric tons of mining waste per day into the Locumba River, polluting the Cinto Valley and impacting farmland. All those tailings discharge into Ite Bay on the Pacific coast. Satellite photos show that since 1955, the waste has spread more than 1.5 kilometers, or nearly a mile, out to sea, damaging an islet and three beaches where locals used to swim in the summer.

Mining waste from Southern Copper’s operations still affect the mouth of Ite Bay, on Peru’s southwestern coast. Image by Roberth Orihuela.

A study by the Citizen Participation Forum for Justice and Human Rights (FOCO) found local beaches had copper concentrations of up to 475 milligrams per kilogram of beach sand. That’s about 48 times the limit recommended for human consumption by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Accumulation of heavy metals such as copper, lead, mercury, zinc, iron, cadmium, arsenic and chromium, as well as the compound cyanide, also threatens marine life, say Alexander Churata and Wilberth Chambilla, environmental management engineers at Jorge Basadre Grohmann National in the city of Tacna. According to their research, for every 100 tons of ore that Southern Copper mined, it extracted just 1 ton of copper, dumping the rest as tailings into the bay and ocean.

Residents began complaining about the company’s activities in 1972, yet Peruvian authorities were slow to act. In 1992, the International Water Tribunal began proceedings against Southern Copper for serious pollution charges presented by local authorities and comptroller Luz Aurea Saenz. The tribunal found the company guilty, adding that at least 75 public officials engaged in corruption by not applying Peruvian laws for 30 years, in favor of the miner.

Throughout the 35 years of Southern Copper discharging mining waste directly in Ite Bay, the waste has spread more than 1.5 kilometers out to sea, damaging an islet and three beaches where locals used to swim in the summer. Image by Google Earth.

But Southern Copper didn’t attend the tribunal, saying it wasn’t recognized by the United Nations (the tribunal was established under a U.N. convention) and discrediting the experts supporting the legal action. It wasn’t until 1994, after signing an agreement with the government of then-president Alberto Fujimori, that Southern Copper agreed to build a tailings reservoir in the highlands of Moquegua, in the Quebrada Honda area. The work to resolve the liabilities began, but remains incomplete to this day. All of this was done in exchange for officials dodging prosecution for environmental pollution crimes. In 2015, Southern Copper managed to get Peru’s Environmental Evaluation and Enforcement Agency (OEFA) to remove the tailings in Ite Bay from the official list of mining-related environmental liabilities.

Southern created a tailings pond, but contaminants are still infiltrating the subsoil. Image by Roberth Orihuela.

Nely Flores, president of the Ite Board of Users, and other local residents say the mining company hasn’t complied with its commitments. The liabilities remain on the beaches of La Meca and Arena Blanca, which are also crossed by a stream that carries polluted water out to sea. A few meters away, the ocean waves lap at a small pond full of accumulated tailings, almost 2 meters (6 feet) high. “We used to swim here as children. They were crowded beaches, but today getting near them is prohibited,” says Javier Carpio, former president of the Ite farmers’ association. In September 2022, OEFA decided that Southern Copper must restrict entry to the beaches because they present “a health risk to people.”

The company refuses to accept the damage and, above all, refuses to acknowledge there’s any pollution. “It is an interpretation error. It is not the correct term. There was never pollution. We are talking about environmental impact,” Antonio Maldonado, the director of environmental services at Southern Copper, says in an interview with Mongabay. He adds that while there was a large impact on Ite Bay, the company hasn’t removed even a kilo of tailings, but has instead set up the wetland with plants and birds in order to turn the liability into an asset and preserve nature.

On the beach at La Meca, 68-year-old Carpio, who has been blind since 2021, recalls swimming and fishing in the area when he was young. Although he still has a mental image of the area, he can’t see the greenish-yellow color of the sand, the rusting barrels, or the notices that the mining company has posted to prevent people from entering: “Mining Residue — Tailings/Do Not Enter,” they read.

The company has made progress on changing Ite Bay. Today, a large part of the 1,600 hectares (nearly 4,000 acres) of accumulated tailings are covered in vegetation that Southern Copper has planted over the last few decades. This vegetation includes pasture grass and totora bulrushes planted on sand and soil arranged on a geomembrane. There are also artificial ponds, thanks to which the area has become recognized as the second-largest wetland in South America. “[Our progress] is at 93%. There are still several years of intervention [left] before finishing the work,” Maldonado says. The images obtained by drone for this article show there are still many pending issues, including the beaches with high levels of copper.

The artificial lagoons created on top of the tailings are still loaded with minerals from mining operations. Image by Roberth Orihuela.

Biologist José Pizarro, who has monitored Southern Copper’s work over the past few decades in Ite Bay, says the company doesn’t allow studies to determine the concentration of heavy metals in wetlands and birds that live or pass through the area. “Metals build up in microorganisms, then get eaten by fish, which get eaten by birds. There would need to be a post-mortem study to analyze the blood, serum and plasma of birds,” he says. “The mining company also does not allow [researchers] to enter to verify the stranding of whales, which has increased in Ite Bay. They do not want the death of whales to be linked to the pollution that they have caused.”

Additionally, a study conducted between 2014 and 2015 by fisheries engineer Cristhian Sánchez Alfaro showed that specimens of a mollusk known locally as choro, which is widely consumed by people in southern Peru, contained copper, arsenic and cadmium at levels in excess of EU and FAO safe limits. Consuming these mollusks could cause poisoning and lead to kidney, liver or neurological damage, the study said. The research was removed from the database of Jorge Basadre Grohmann National University, which received $23 million this year through mining taxes.

The artificial lagoons created by Southern have become a habitat for many bird species, but experts warn that the waters might still be contaminated with heavy metals that could travel through the local food chain. Image by Roberth Orihuela.

Maldonado denies that the company restricts scientific research in the area in any form. “With arrangements made in advance, our doors are open,” he says.

The latest study conducted in the area, known as a participatory environmental monitoring, was commissioned by Southern Copper and carried out by the consultancy SGS Peru in May 2023. It found that the Locumba River is still contaminated, with high levels of aluminum, arsenic, boron and iron in the water, at concentrations of up to 43 times the maximum permissible limit. The Locumba, which ends in Ite, supplies nearly 3,000 people across the entire valley with water.

Maldonado says Southern Copper doesn’t dump any waste into the Locumba River, and instead attributes the high levels of boron and arsenic with volcanic activity and the geography of the Peruvian Andes. He offers no explanation for the aluminum and iron levels, and adds he doesn’t know about the SGS study for Southern Copper. “I would have to review it,” he tells Mongabay.

Breathing gets difficult near Cerro Verde

Less than 10 km (6 mi) from Arequipa, Peru’s second-largest city, is the most important copper mine in the country: Cerro Verde. Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. bought out the Phelps Dodge Corporation’s stake in it in 1994, and today owns a 53% share. In that time, it has increased production at Cerro Verde by more than 350%.

However, this intensification of operations has been accompanied by 33 environmental crimes. The company has been sanctioned for failing to prevent the leakage of tailings into the subsoil in the tailings pond located in the area of La Enlozada. Instead of covering the soil with geotextile and geomesh, it only put down a layer of granulated rock, which failed to comply with what it promised in the environmental management tool. This, according to OEFA, is the cause of high concentrations of sulfates and chlorides in the subsoil, contaminating the groundwater. The company says granulated rock is be better solution than geotextile, yet to this day the tailings pond continues to leak and pollute the subsoil.

According to environmental authorities, Cerro Verde’s tailings pond is leaking contaminants into the subsoil. Image by Roberth Orihuela.

On several occasions, the company was also sanctioned and fined for failing to prevent the spread of dust caused during its production process. This dust can reach communities living closest to the mine in the districts of Socabaya, Uchumayo, Tiabaya, Hunter and Yarabamba.

Official reports from the OEFA monitoring station, in the district of Socabaya, show that on several occasions, levels of fine particulate matter in the air known as PM10 and PM2.5 exceeded maximum permissible limits under Peruvian laws. Almost every day between June and October of 2023, the monitoring station recorded PM10 and PM2.5 levels in excess of the respective limits of 100 and 50 micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3); these limits are themselves laxer than FAO limits. Long-term exposure to particulate matter can lead to a wide range of illnesses, from asthma and cardiovascular issues, to pulmonary fibrosis and slower blood circulation.

According to Wendy Ancieta, a lawyer with the Peruvian Society for Environmental Law (SPDA), the real problem is that Peruvian authorities should enforce compliance with these limits. “It is true that Peruvian authorities should take scientific studies more into account to make decisions about regulating the mining sector. It is also necessary to train officials from the auditing entities, since auditing and evaluation have their shortcomings. It can improve, but changing the standards is a question of government policy. But we citizens can request a change,” Ancieta says.

Luz Guerra, a resident of the district of Uchumayo, near Cerro Verde, has complained to the company several times, including over the dust that settles inside homes in the community of Congata in Uchumayo. In 2019, along with other neighbors, she requested that the Uchumayo authorities screen citizens for respiratory issues and other health impacts caused by the pollution in the air.

Since 2014 the number of respiratory illnesses in Uchumayo and other districts close to Cerro Verde has increased. Image by Roberth Orihuela.

The district administration, which receives money from the mine through taxes, said it didn’t have the resources for this and transferred the matter to the regional health management office. The request is still pending.

Guerra has insistently asked the regional health management office for pollution information in the community of Cerro Verde. The data, which hadn’t previously been available publicly, showed that between 2010 and 2021, PM10 readings fluctuated between 58 and 116 μg/m3. In 2018, Guerra also managed to get the Research and Services Laboratory at the National University of San Agustín to conduct a study on PM10 and PM2.5 levels in the same area, which also showed excessive pollution.

Morbidity data supplied by the regional health authority for this report show the number of cases of acute respiratory infections (ARIs) have increased among people living near the mine, especially since 2014, when the company began to expand its activities. For example, in Yarabamba, the ARI cases climbed from 29 in 2012 to 869 in 2016 to 727 cases in 2019. Rates dropped during the COVID-19 pandemic due to a lack of focus on this issue, but in 2022, 1,248 cases of ARIs were reported. In Tiabaya and Uchumayo, the number of cases soared from 153 and 421 in 2012 to 4,046 and 3,379 in 2019, respectively.

Miski Mayo’s phosphate pollution

Since 2010, Florida-based The Mosaic Company has had a growing stake in Miski Mayo, an open-air phosphate mine in the province of Sechura, in Peru’s northern Piura region. The company exports most of its production to Brazil to meet that market’s vast demand for fertilizer.

The problem, according to Ramón Correa, a Sechura local, is that the mining company uses a process that causes high levels of pollution. This begins in the mine, which is in the middle of the Sechura Desert, an essential habitat for carob trees, which rely on groundwater to survive the extreme heat.

The pollution caused by the Miski Mayo mine reaches the Virrilá estuary, killing local marine fauna. Image by Roberth Orihuela.

There, Miski Mayo extracts the phosphate-rich rock and soil. It then washes the ore and transports the concentrate almost 30 km (19 mi) to the open-air unloading zone, located in front of the coastal communities of Playa Blanca and Puerto Rico. From there, the phosphate is moved on conveyor belts for another 5 km (3 mi) to furnaces that fully dry the material. Finally, it’s deposited into large tanks to be sent to the port in Bayóvar for export.

On its website, the company says all its production processes respect the environment, and that it prevents phosphate dust from being dispersed along the transit route. But on the ground, the articulated trucks that transport the phosphate don’t cover their cargo or maintain the proper humidity levels established by the environmental management tool developed by Miski Mayo. OEFA has fined Mosaic for 38 infractions.

The consequences of the pollution include the rapid disappearance of pastures, used by community members from the Illescas area use to raise cattle, sheep and goats. Manuel Llengue Sánchez is a rancher who remembers when the pasture was sufficient for his cattle; he says his animals have now died due to the dust left behind by the trucks. Llengue tells Mongabay the dust also led to the carob trees losing their leaves more quickly, which negatively impacted his animals’ nutrition. The mining company promised to replant the carob forest that borders the haul road, but it didn’t keep up with irrigation and maintenance, so the trees dried out.

Shellfish farmers and artisanal fishers have also complained for years that the pollution that reaches the ocean throws off the balance of the marine ecosystem. “The phosphate causes algae to grow more quickly and suffocate shellfish and fish,” says Fidel Periche, leader of the artisanal fishers in Sechura. “In addition, the company uses water from the ocean for its operations and has suction machines that remove young fish and eggs from the shellfish and fish. We have asked that they place filters to avoid this damage. It has decreased, but the impact has persisted.”

Contamination from phosphates being loaded onto ships for export undermines local Peruvian scallop production. Image by Roberth Orihuela.

Periche says loading the phosphate onto ships also generates large amounts of dust, which then settles on the ocean surface and reaches the Virrilá estuary, an ecosystem critical for birds, fish and sea turtles that’s protected by Peruvian authorities.

The residents of Puerto Rico, almost all employees of PetroPerú, the state-owned oil company, have also been affected. The former general secretary of the PetroPerú union in Piura, Evin Querebalú, says they reported Mosaic several times for the amount of dust carried in the wind near their operations. “A minister of environment, members of congress and other authorities came, and we managed to sanction the mine. The problem is that no complaints could advance through the judicial side. [Prosecutors shelved] the investigations. We have not had real justice. And meanwhile, we continue to be polluted. Many workers became sick with respiratory illnesses due to the pollution,” Querebalú says.

Many residents of Sechura say they fear Miski Mayo will continue affecting them. After several strikes in the past decade, members of the community managed to get the mining company to recognize the San Martín de Sechura Communal Foundation. The foundation manages the money that the company pays as royalties, using it for local projects. But the foundation has lost all incentive to report the mining company’s offenses, critics say. “The premise is: We give you money and [you] leave us to work in peace,” says Ramón Correa. Representatives of the foundation didn’t respond to Mongabay’s requests for comment.

Complaints against Miski Mayo started years ago, but contamination is ongoing. Image by Roberth Orihuela.

In Ite Bay, the population is divided. Those who receive benefits from or work for Southern Copper defend the company, and even single out and exclude residents who criticize or report irregularities. In Arequipa, when Freeport McMoRan built its La Enlozada wastewater treatment plant a few years ago, residents of Uchumayo reported that their houses were being affected by the vibrations caused by the suction system. There were reports of houses on the brink of collapse and others with cracked walls and roofs. The company offered payments to these homeowners, who had to sign a private contract stating they wouldn’t report the company again. Those who signed didn’t even get a copy of the agreement. Luz Guerra was also affected: her parents’ house has been cracked by the vibrations. She tried to come to an agreement with the company, but they offered only $3,000. She refused to sign, and continues to fight against the mining company.

The operators of both the Cerro Verde and Miski Mayo mines refused Mongabay’s request for an interview.

Banner image: Copper mine owned by Southern Copper. Image by Roberth Orihuela.

Related reading:

Illegal gold mining devastates Peruvian Amazon river and communities

Poisoned for decades by a Peruvian mine, communities say they feel forgotten

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