"You're basically eating and breathing contaminated air. You're walking around in a poisoned atmosphere, that's what's happening when the fumes are coming out of the smelter," said Dr. Anna Cederstav, a scientist with the environmental law group EarthJustice who has tracked the clean-up of La Oroya over the last decade.
Decades of smeltering activities have also lead to high levels of heavy metal contamination throughout the town. A 2005 study conducted by scientists at Saint Louis University in Missouri found that virtually all children in the town under the age of six had levels greater than 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, a level at which the CDC recommends public health actions be initiated. Lead is known to cause neurodevelopmental disorders in young children.
Now, the government of Peru is threatening to seize Renco Group's stake in the smelter over debts to creditors and claims the company has failed to meet its environmental obligations. At least two members of Congress have recently written to the State and Treasury Departments expressing "serious concern" over the Peruvian government's treatment of the company.
In a letter to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dated February 8, Rep. Donald Payne, a New Jersey Democrat who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he was concerned over the "disparate treatment" Renco had received from the government of Peru, despite the steps the company has made to clean up a site it has only operated since 1997. The letter was sent eight days after his former chief of staff, Kerry McKenney, became an officially registered lobbyist for Renco. McKenney left Payne's office last year and went work for the Monument Strategies lobbying firm.
"We understand that by 2009 [Doe Run Peru] had invested $315 million in meeting the terms of the agreement, and during that same period of time, and up until this date, the Government of Peru has spent nothing to fulfill its obligations," wrote Payne in the February 8 letter, which he later entered into the Congressional record. Payne also wrote to Geithner three weeks earlier.
Rep. Spencer Bachus, an Alabama Republican who chairs the House Committee on Financial Services, sent a letter to Geithner dated January 25 citing claims of "inappropriate treatment" at the hands of the Peruvian government by Renco. The letter says the company claims that it had spent $315 million on environmental clean-up while the Peruvian government spent nothing.
"While my office does not have the resources to investigate these claims," wrote Rep. Bachus, "DRP raises series issues, particularly since the U.S. and Peru are parties to a trade promotion agreement."
Renco has made similar claims in recent press releases stating that the company's complaint "stems from the government of Peru's failure to honor its legal obligations under international law… this include the government of Peru's refusal to clean the soil in and around La Oroya as it is legal committed and promised to do."
CLICK HERE to read The Renco Group's press release.
Cederstav agreed that the government of Peru should be doing more to help the people of La Oroya, but she argued that Renco's recent statements omit some crucial facts involved in the dispute.