The Peruvian mining town of La Oroya, one of the most polluted places on earth, is trying to reopen a heavy metal smelter that has been poisoning residents for nearly a century.
The Andean city, located in a high valley at 3,750 meters, is a grey, desolate place.
Small homes and businesses—many abandoned—huddle around towering black chimneys surrounded by ashen mountainsides corroded by heavy metals and long devoid of vegetation.
In 2009, the gigantic smelter that was the economic heart of La Oroya went bankrupt, forcing residents to leave in droves and bringing local commerce to its knees.
Since 1922, the plant has processed copper, zinc, lead, gold, selenium and other minerals from nearby mines.
If the metallurgical complex reopens, as announced by its new owners in October, it could breathe life back into the economy.
“The vast majority of the population is excited and has waited a long time for it to start again because it is the source of life, the economic source,” said 48-year-old taxi driver Hugo Enrique.
But at what cost?
– A life full of illness –
In 2011, La Oroya was listed as the second most polluted city on earth, falling to fifth two years later, according to the Blacksmith Institute, an NGO that studies environmental problems.
It found itself in ominous company alongside Ukraine’s nuclear-ridden Chernobyl and Russia’s Dzerzhinsk, site of Cold War-era chemical weapons factories.
According to the International Federation for Human Rights, in 2013, 97 percent of La Oroya children between the ages of six months and six years and 98 percent between the ages of seven and 12 had elevated blood lead levels.
Manuel Enrique Apolinario, 68, a teacher who lives across the street from the foundry, told AFP his body had high levels of lead, arsenic and cadmium.
Residents “have become accustomed to living surrounded by smoke and toxic gases,” he said.
“Those of us who have lived here a lifetime have been sick with the flu and bronchitis, particularly respiratory infections.”
– Another 100 years?-
The foundry opened in 1922, was nationalized in 1974 and later privatized in 1997 when US resource company Doe Run took it over.
In June 2009, Doe Run ceased operations after failing to comply with an environmental protection program and declared itself insolvent.
Now, although residents have accused Lima and Doe Run for years of ignoring the harmful effects, some 1,270 former employees plan to reopen the smelter next March – with vows not to pollute the environment.
Luis Mantari, one of the new owners in charge of logistics, said the plant will be run “with social and environmental responsibility”.
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“We want this unique complex to last another 100 years,” added Human Resources Manager Jose Aguilar.
The company has stockpiled 14 million tons of copper and lead slag waste awaiting conversion to zinc.
“Those of us who have fought pollution have never opposed the work of the company. Let it reopen with an environmental plan,” said Pablo Fabian Martinez, 67, who also lives near the site.
For many, however, the decision boils down to pure wallet problems.
“I want it to reopen because without the company, La Oroya has lost its entire economy,” added Rosa Vilchez, a 30-year-old businesswoman. After the closure, her husband went to another city to work there.
– respect health –
In 2006, residents of La Oroya sued the Peruvian government at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for allowing the company to pollute at will.
Hearings began in October when the court was in session in the Uruguayan capital, Montevideo, and local residents reported struggling with burning throats and eyes, headaches and difficulty breathing.
Others told of tumors, muscle problems, and infertility attributed to pollution from the smelters.
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The commission found last year that the state had failed to regulate and monitor the mining company’s behavior and had “compromised its obligation to uphold human rights.”
“We are aware that the metallurgical complex is a source of employment. We don’t dispute that,” said Yolanda Zurita, one of the litigants, who is planting trees to curb pollution.
“But she has to respect the health of the population.”