Tough choices have to be made when the only options are a polluted community or grinding poverty. Those are the options facing residents of La Oroya, Peru, since Doe Run Peru closed its metallurgical complex.
The Doe Run complex treated polymetallic ores from the Andes Mountains east of Lima. It produced 10 primary metals (copper, zinc, silver, lead, indium, bismuth, gold, selenium, tellurium and antimony) and nine byproducts (zinc sulphate, copper sulphate, sulphuric acid arsenic trioxide, oleum, sodium bisulphate, zinc oxide, zinc dust and zinc-silver concentrates). Needless to say, the ore is metallurgically difficult and 87 years of operation have left the surrounding community among the most polluted places on the planet.
Local residents have high levels of arsenic and lead in their blood. The New York Times reported that in 2005, 97% of children under the age of six had lead levels in their blood that would be considered toxic by North American standards.
Doe Run Peru bought the smelter from the Peruvian government in 1997. As a condition of the sale, Doe Run was required to make major cuts in air and water pollution within 10 years. The company says it has made significant progress such as cutting airborne arsenic emissions by 80%. Doe Run asked for and was granted a two-year extension to the original deadline, but says it will not meet the new Oct. 31, 2009, deadline. It says it needs another 30 months.
Caught in the worldwide recession and plummeting metals prices, Doe Run Peru ran out of money in June, and the smelter was shut down. Since then nothing has been done to advance cleanup work. Without an extension, the metallurgical complex will remain closed. Doe Run's 3,500 employees will lose their jobs permanently, to say nothing of the 16,000 indirect jobs the complex supports.
The residents of La Oroya are divided. Yes, they want the pollution cleaned up. Of course, they need the work that Doe Run can offer. The mineral industry provides well-paying jobs. There are no other industries nearby to soften the blow. So the people of this Andean town, who have long depended on the mines and smelters, appear to have a tough choice: pollution or poverty.