The toxic air of La Oroya is a time bomb for the city's children.
Credit: Courtesy of Peruvian newspaper La República
A Breath of Fresh Air for La Oroya?
By Milagros Salazar
The Peruvian city of La Oroya will adopt a warning system to protect its residents from the worst moments of air pollution.
LIMA, Aug 6 (Tierramérica).- Far from halting the source that is poisoning the Andean city of La Oroya, which is home to the Doe Run smelting complex, the Peruvian government ordered a contingency plan for the days when air pollution is worst, as if it were dealing with a natural disaster.
The Contingency Plan for States of Alert will be presented Aug. 10 by the government's national environmental council, CONAM, which approved it Jul. 18 to protect the 35,000 inhabitants of La Oroya from the sulfur dioxide, lead and cadmium emissions from the Doe Run smokestacks.
The plan is the result of two years of debates involving citizen groups, non-governmental organizations and the state agencies in charge of carrying it out, as well as representatives of the company, which will provide much of the financing.
La Oroya, 180 kilometers east of Lima, is one of the country's 13 most polluted cities, the government said in 2001. The New York-based Blacksmith Institute in 2006 included it in a list of the 10 worst cases in the world.
CONAM regional coordinator Carlos Rojas told Tierramérica there will be three levels of alert: watch, danger and emergency, according to which actions will be taken to limit the exposure of the affected population and partially halt two production lines of lead and copper at Doe Run.
The degree of alert will be determined based on air quality and weather forecasts unfavorable to dispersal of the gases and particulates away from the city, such as lower temperatures and lack of wind. But none of the three levels entails ceasing operations at the smelting plant, Rojas said.
Once a state of alert is ordered, it will be recommended that the most vulnerable in the population -- children, pregnant women, the elderly and people with respiratory or cardiovascular illnesses -- should not be outdoors between 9:00 am and 1:00 pm local time, the worst period of the day for exposure.
Doors and windows of homes, schools and hospitals should be closed, and food sold on the street should be covered.
The population in general should cover mouth and nose with scarves and handkerchiefs when outside. The idea of facemasks was ruled out because "people don't want images that further dramatize the situation," said Rojas.
Asked about Doe Run's contribution to the contingency plan, a company source told Tierramérica that it has been applying stop-work measures voluntarily since 2000.
The stoppages affect two plants identified as the ones producing the greatest volume of sulfur dioxide: sintering (to produce bullion) and copper conversion. In the first case, reducing the input of sulfur, and in the second, halting one or several copper foundries, according to the company.
But "the cost of the actions involved in the implementation of the contingency plan for each of the actors involved has not yet been determined," said the source.
The gases and particulate matter affect people's eyes and breathing, and can cause lung-related ailments. Furthermore, the accumulation of heavy metals like lead in the body, especially in children, is a factor in growth and learning disorders, and chronic illnesses.
The Doe Run complex's main chimney emits an average of 1.5 tons of lead and 810 tons of sulfur dioxide every 24 hours -- more than four times the maximum allowed under Peruvian legislation, which is 175 tons per day of sulfur dioxide, according to the Ministry of Energy and Mines.
The same day that CONAM approved the plan, the level of sulfur dioxide recorded over the course of three hours was 12,000 micrograms of sulfur dioxide per cubic meter of air, when the air quality standard only allows 364 micrograms.
Tests also found 330 micrograms per cubic meter of air a composite that includes lead, cadmium and arsenic -- twice the level allowed under air quality standards.
Medical studies by the non-governmental CooperAcción in 1999 and 2003 and by the U.S. University of Missouri-St. Louis in 2005 found that most of the children under age six had more than 40 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood (mcg/dl), four times more than the 10 mcg/dl established as the maximum by the World Health Organization.
In its first four months, the contingency plan will be centered on the reduction of emissions, and then will shift towards measures involving residents, through an information campaign.
The city of La Oroya depends on Doe Run for economic survival, as most residents depend directly or indirectly on the smelting complex for work.
Mayor César Gutiérrez, unlike his predecessor, has supported the alert program since he took office this year. "It is necessary to protect ourselves until the company complies with reducing pollution," he told Tierramérica.
Furthermore, he has called on the mining investment supervisory body to report the results of the audit conducted on Doe Run at the beginning of the year. But its president, Alfredo Dammert, told Tierramérica that this month it will be announced if there will be sanctions against the company, mainly for emissions of sulfur dioxide that it was required to reduce by 2007.
The company assures that emissions of particulate matter have been reduced since the complex began operations in 1997 from 147 micrograms to 73 micrograms per cubic meter of air. The maximum allowed by law is 100 micrograms.
Doe Run also maintains that it has curbed sulfur dioxide emissions by 20 percent.
But according to CONAM, the emission of this toxic agent is a matter of concern. If the contingency plan were CONAM already in place, a state of emergency would have been declared 183 days so far this year.
* Milagros Salazar is an IPS correspondent.