Lead Astray

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

Go there >>
Lead Astray

Related Links:

Related Links from theUtne

Comments? Story tips?
Write a letter to the editor

Like this? Want more?Subscribe to
Utne Reader

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.