The Peruvian mining town of La Orroya, one of the most polluted places in the world, is seeking to reopen a heavy metal smelter that has poisoned the population for nearly a century.
The Andean city, located in a high valley at an altitude of 3,750 meters (12,300 feet), is a gray, desolate place.
Houses and small shops – many of them abandoned – are clustered around towering black stacks, hemmed in by gray mountain slopes that have been eroded by heavy metals and long devoid of vegetation.
In 2009, the giant smelter that was the beating heart of the economy in La Orroya 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 mineral complex reopens, as its new owners announced in October, it could bring the economy back to life.
“The vast majority of the population is excited and they have waited a long time for this to start again, because it is the source of life, the economic source,” said Hugo Enrique, a 48-year-old taxi driver.
But at what cost?
– A lifelong illness –
In 2011, La Orroya was listed as the second most polluted city on Earth, with it coming in fifth two years later, according to the Blacksmith Institute, an NGO that works on pollution issues.
It has been in bad company, shouldering Ukraine’s nuclear-contaminated Chernobyl and Russia’s Dzerzhinsk, the site of Cold War-era factories producing chemical weapons.
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 levels of lead in their blood.
Manuel Enrique Apolinario, 68, a teacher who lives in front of the foundry, told AFP that his body contains high levels of lead, arsenic and cadmium.
He said the residents were “accustomed to the way of life, surrounded by smoke and poisonous gases”.
“Those of us who have lived here our entire lives have been suffering from influenza and bronchitis, especially respiratory infections.”
– Another 100 years? –
The foundry was opened in 1922, nationalized in 1974, and then privatized in 1997 when it was acquired by the American natural resources company Doe Run.
In June 2009, Doe Run ceased operations after failing to comply with an environmental protection program and declared itself insolvent.
Now, despite years of residents accusing Lima and Doe Run of turning a blind eye to the harmful effects, some 1,270 former employees want the smelter to reopen next March — with a no-pollution pledge.
Luis Mantari, one of the new owners and in charge of logistics, said the factory would operate with “social and environmental responsibility”.
Also read: Court Fines Record fines in France for air pollution
“We want this unique complex to last for another 100 years,” added HR Chief Jose Aguilar.
The company stored 14 million tons of waste copper and lead slag waiting to be converted into zinc.
“Those who fought against pollution never opposed the company’s work. Pablo Fabian Martinez, 67, who lives near the site, said:
For many, the decision comes down to pure pocketbook issues.
“I want to reopen it because without the company, La Oroya has lost its entire economy,” added Rosa Vilches, a 30-year-old businesswoman. Her husband left to work in another city after the lockdown.
– Respect for health –
In 2006, residents of La Oroya sued the Peruvian government before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for allowing the company to pollute at will.
Hearings began in October with court hearings in the Uruguayan capital, Montevideo, and residents recounted how they experienced burning throats and eyes, headaches and difficulty breathing.
Others spoke of tumors, muscular problems, and infertility, and blamed pollution from the smelters.
Also read: Air pollution costs the Middle East and North Africa $141 billion annually – World Bank
Last year, the committee found that the state had failed to regulate and monitor the mining company’s conduct and had “breached its obligation to guarantee human rights.”
“We realize that the mineral complex is a source of employment. “We don’t deny it,” said Yolanda Zurita, one of the litigants, who is planting trees to counter pollution.
“But you must respect the health of the population.”