Doe Run Peru’s La Oroya Makes Great Strides
Dr. Patrick Moore
January 2, 2005
I recently found myself at 12,400 feet in the Peruvian Andes, witnessing a noisy demonstration led by Mayor Clemente Quincho of the small mountain village of La Oroya.
Thrusting his fist high in the air, the mayor led thousands of marchers in short, sharp slogans and emotive chants, producing for anyone with a passing interest in activism what can only be described as the familiar sound of civil protest.
Nestled in a steep mountain valley 112 miles northeast of Lima, La Oroya is the site of a huge copper and lead smelter that has operated for more than 75 years. The sky is clear the day the protest occurs, but, as is typical of long-established industrial operations, emissions from the plant have through the decades created health and environmental challenges for the community. Now the smelter’s new owner, Doe Run Peru, is working to improve conditions in the region.
Yet it’s not pollution that has brought thousands of townsfolk to the rally on this afternoon. Rather they’re demonstrating in favour of the continued operation of the smelter, both because it’s the lifeblood of the town and because they support the company, Doe Run Peru, in its efforts to improve the social and environmental conditions in the region.
This isn’t the kind of story one usually reads about mining companies operating in developing countries. But more and more international mining firms are adopting policies that focus on sustainable development in regions like this one. In the case of the mountain village of La Oroya, the environmental, social and economic benefits of the company’s activities are becoming clear.
For most of its life the smelter was owned by the Peruvian government and, as with many industrial facilities the world over, there was little concern for pollution control.
In 1997, the smelter was purchased by The Doe Run Company, based in St. Louis, Missouri. As part of that purchase the company agreed to spend more than $100 million over eight years on improvements to help reduce plant emissions. Known locally as the PAMA, this agreement with the government of Peru also acknowledged the government’s responsibility for addressing many of the historical clean-up needs for the community which predated Doe Run’s involvement.
Initially focusing on the reduction of emissions such as cadmium and sulphur as required by the PAMA, Doe Run Peru soon found through its on-site assessments that other areas of concern, such as air lead emissions, presented a more significant health risk to the local community. This science-based reassessment of priorities, with its inherent costs to the company, is testament to the responsible role Doe Run Peru is playing as part of the La Oroya community.
Last week, with the strong support of the local community and labor unions, the government of Peru approved Doe Run Peru to apply to amend its agreement to reflect these new priorities.
Today the company is well on the way to addressing the lead contamination and other environmental issues in the village and surrounding area; there is already a 27 percent reduction of lead levels in the blood of workers, air lead emissions are down 21 percent, and discharges into local rivers have decreased significantly. In addition, industrial safety has dramatically improved at the smelter.
While the company’s progress on lead-level reductions in La Oroya has been considerable, reducing sulphur emissions will require more work as there simply hasn’t been the time to complete the massive sulphur extraction plant that will bring the stack emissions down to acceptable levels. The company has pledged to make this happen.
But investment in pollution controls isn’t the only reason the La Oroya townsfolk support the activities of Doe Run Peru.
The company provides funds for healthcare, education and hot lunch programs for local children. It has carried out the first-ever community-wide blood-level surveys using Centers for Disease Control protocols, has put in place lead-level reduction programs, and has implemented water-collection systems that enable treatment of storm water and sewage.
It has planted thousands of cypress trees along the village streets, is assisting local dairy farmers in increasing productivity and has provided small business practices training for nearly 4,000 local women, resulting in 25 new community businesses.
I spoke directly to Mayor Quincho, to doctors, local foresters, farmers and social workers in La Oroya, all of whom felt the company was doing its best to improve the social, environmental and economic conditions in the region.
I’ve been fortunate to have traveled throughout the world and to have seen the sustainable development debate from many sides. I can say with confidence that Doe Run Peru is a good, responsible citizen of the La Oroya community, and will continue to bring about improvements for the people of La Oroya and the surrounding region.
One can only hope that the government of Peru and the international community at large will hear the chants of the thousands of demonstrators who also see Doe Run Peru as an important part of this community’s sustainable future.