Lead Astray

What happens when an American company offshores pollution?

| December 21, 2006

When an acid plume corroded the paint on her new car in 1997, Leslie Warden had enough. After years of passively co-existing with a neighboring lead-smelting plant in Herculaneum, Missouri, she started making phone calls and, as Sara Shipley Hiles and Marina Walker Guevara report in Mother Jones, her husband cornered an environmental official into testing the dust on the metallic-lustered streets. The testing revealed that the town's streets were covered with 30 percent pure lead, courtesy of the Missouri-based Doe Run Company, a preeminent force in the lead industry. With the situation in Herculaneum looking grim for the company, Doe Run quietly purchased another smelter -- a continent away in La Oroya, Peru.

According to Hiles and Guevara, this situation is not unusual. A company facing increasing costs and concerns is more apt to offshore its 'dirty' business than to resolve to clean up and comply with looming environmental regulations stateside. Part of the initial deal in La Oroya secured Doe Run's role in a 10-year cleanup plan for the facility. Although it made initial improvements, Mother Jones reports that within eight years the Peruvian plant was churning out substantial revenue and 31 times the pollution.

Meanwhile, children in both towns were suffering from severe lead poisoning. In Herculaneum, 56 percent of children living near Doe Run's facility showed high lead concentration in their bloodstream and in La Oroya, those younger than 7 registered three times the internationally recognized standard, with one child registering nine times the level.

Word of the sister smelting plant in La Oroya spread to residents of Herculaneum after an American missionary visited the Peruvian town in 2001 and witnessed its condition. Meetings between residents of both towns soon followed, and Warden even flew to Peru in 2003 to testify against the company in congressional hearings on the situation there.

Today, dust that contains up to 25 percent lead continues to pollute some streets in Herculaneum. While a company buyout of the Wardens' house allowed the family to move, no such offers have been made in La Oroya. The Peruvian government granted a three-year extension on cleaning up its act to the company, but, as the authors note, even if Doe Run complies with the plan, the town will remain hazardous and its children will continue to suffer. -- Elizabeth Ryan

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