Photos by Ernesto Benavides. Video by Carlos Reyes
The Peruvian mining town of La Oroya, one of the most polluted places in the world, is trying to reopen a heavy metal smelter that poisoned residents for nearly a century.
The Andean city, located in a valley at an altitude of 3,750 m (12,300 ft), is a grey, desolate place.
Small houses and shops – many abandoned – cluster around huge black chimneys, crammed into ash-strewn mountain slopes laced with heavy metals and long devoid of vegetation.
In 2009, the giant smelter that was the economic heartbeat of La Oroya went bankrupt, forcing residents to flock in and bringing local commerce to its knees.
From 1922, the plant processed copper, zinc, lead, gold, selenium and other minerals from nearby mines.
If the metallurgical complex reopens, as its new owners announced in October, it could revive the economy.
“The bulk of the population is eager and has been waiting a long time for it to resume, because it is a source of life, an economic source,” said Hugo Enrique, a 48-year-old taxi driver.
But at what cost?
In 2011, La Oroya was listed as the second most polluted city on Earth, falling to fifth place two years later, according to the Blacksmith Institute, an NGO that works on pollution issues.
It stood side by side with nuclear-infested Chernobyl in Ukraine and Dzerzhinsk in Russia, the site of Cold War-era factories producing chemical weapons.
According to the International Federation for Human Rights, in 2013, 97 percent of children in La Oroya between the ages of six months and six years and 98 percent of children between the ages of seven and 12 had elevated blood lead levels.
Manuel Enrique Apolinario, 68, who lives opposite the foundry, told AFP he had high levels of lead, arsenic and cadmium in his body.
He said that residents had become “accustomed to a way of life surrounded by smoke and toxic gases.”
“Those of us who have lived here all our lives are sick with flu and bronchitis, especially respiratory infections.”
The foundry was opened in 1922, nationalized in 1974, and later privatized in 1997 when it was taken over by the American natural resources firm Doe Run.
In June 2009, Doe Run ceased operations and declared itself bankrupt after failing to comply with an environmental protection program.
Now, despite years of accusations by residents of turning a blind eye to the harmful effects on Lima and Doe Run, some 1,270 former workers want to reopen the smelter next March — with a vow not to pollute.
Luis Mantari, one of the new owners in charge of logistics, said the plant would operate “with social and environmental responsibility”.
“We want this unique campus to last for the next 100 years,” said human resources boss José Aguilar.
The company has reserves of 14 million tonnes of copper and lead slag waste awaiting conversion to zinc.
Pablo Fabian Martinez, 67, who lives near the site, said, “Those of us who have fought against pollution have never opposed the company doing the work. Let it reopen with an environmental plan.”
However, for many people, the decision comes down to pure pocketbook issues.
“I want to reopen it, because without the company, La Oroya lost its entire economy,” said Rosa Vilchez, a 30-year-old businesswoman. After she lost her job, her husband went to work in another city.
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.
The hearings began in October with the court in Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo, and residents describing how they were suffering from burning throat and eyes, headaches and difficulty breathing.
Others reported tumors, muscle problems, and infertility attributed to pollution from the smelter.
The commission found last year that the state had failed to regulate and monitor mining company practices and “compromised its obligation to guarantee human rights.”
“We know the metallurgical complex is a source of employment. We don’t deny it,” said Yolanda Zurita, who plants trees to combat pollution.
“But it must respect the health of the population.”