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3/31/08

Why do people live at La Oroya?

If you don't know, La Oroya is a town about 80 miles East of Lima up in the mountains. It's also home to the Doe Run lead (and other metals) smelter and classed as one of the top ten most polluted places in the world, according to The Blacksmith Institute.

Undisputed stats from the town are pretty dire. The one that's reported by every story is the amount of lead (Pb) found in children's blood. You can check that link above for more, but basically lead levels are three times above world accepted limits at the town (33µg/dL instead of 10µg/dL), though you'd never know that from the Doe Run press releases who point out that Peru law allows 40µg/dL. Funny how a mining and smelting country sets its own toxicity levels, innit?

So anyway, whenever we get a report on the ghastliness of La Oroya and the obligatory photo of kids in front of the smokestacks, just like the ones here, here and here (and there are plenty more where they came from) the thing that comes to this naturally contrarian mind is, "Why do they live there?" I mean it...why? If I said, "Dude, come live in dangerous place for your health where kids suffer chronic diseases", would you be tempted? The answer: You earn serious money working at Doe Run Peru.

Click on the chart and you'll see people living in La Oroya (no surprises for guessing where nearly every Oroya resident works) make that much more than average monthly Peru salaries, no matter what level of education you have. Look, sure, the environment is important. I'm all for carbon credits and climate crises and 'An Inconvenient Truth' left me going "uh oh...gotta do something...this ain't funny no more". But there's a couple of things in play here only the smarter enviro people catch.

1) A Peruvian manual worker puts ten years in at La Oroya and he can buy a house, a car, raise his kids, send them to a decent secondary school. This improves the standard of living and social awareness in Peru. It's a long-term win-win.

2) Without the money generated by Doe Run, there wouldn't be a hospital about to be built there, which will benefit not only the 35,000 townsfolk, but the catchment area of smaller villages around La Oroya.

3) Etc

Also, Doe Run Peru are cleaning up their act. Since the new owners took over the plant in 1997 they have dragged their heels on the environment side of things, but according to the latest reports contamination is down. So that's cool...it's late arriving but it's cool. NGOs and new gov't legislation has pushed the company and many others like it into doing something about pollution levels and the efforts made by the enviro groups are worthy of applause. But the fact is that, by and large, miners are cleaning up their acts in Peru, in Latin America and around the world. The don't-give-a-damn-about-the-locals days are over down here, cos the locals now have enough clout to decide whether a miner gets to mine in their backyards. Test cases of Esquel in Argentina, Majaz in Peru, Ascendant Copper in Ecuador all show that green movements can stop a project in its tracks, and that was plain impossible 30 years ago.

So the bottom line is being environmentally friendly is now good for business in mining world, and miners now know it. That's the way forward, folks. Lay down the rules and then say "be clean and make money, or be dirty and get booted out." With the amount of moolah to be made in the sector these days, the miners play ball. Because of that La Oroya will eventually benefit, not just with high salaries but with cleanER air and a shiny new hospital, and my stars they deserve it after all they've been through.