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ENVIRONMENT-PERU: In Search of Less Toxic Mining

Milagros Salazar* - Tierramérica

LIMA, Apr 5 2008 (IPS) - The Peruvian government is seeking to reduce the maximum allowable emissions of pollutants by the mining industry, but the proposed limits are still a long way from meeting international standards.

A day in the life of the Peruvian city of La Oroya, one of the most toxic places in the world.  Credit: Courtesy of La República.

A day in the life of the Peruvian city of La Oroya, one of the most toxic places in the world. Credit: Courtesy of La República.

The initiative, submitted for consultation in December and January by the National Environment Council (CONAM), has come under fire as insufficient for protecting the health of residents who are exposed to poisonous gases and metals from mining operations and foundries, including arsenic, zinc, sulphur and cadmium.

The proposed decree would approve the new "maximum permissible limits" (MPLs) for liquid effluents and atmospheric emissions, set in 1996 for the mining-metallurgy sector, as well as regulations for compliance.

When CONAM experts finish evaluating the input, the document will go to the Presidency of the Council of Ministers for final approval. No deadline has been set for the process.

According to the proposal, the liquid waste that is dumping arsenic into lakes and rivers must not have a concentration higher than 0.5 micrograms per litre (mcg/l).

That cuts in half the current national limit of one mcg/l, but is five times higher than what is allowed under the limits established by the World Bank in 2007, of 0.1 mcg/l, according to Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (ELAW).

The non-governmental Muqui Network asked chemist Mercedes Lu and biochemist Mark Chernaik, of ELAW, to review the government's proposal as a means to contribute to the debate.

According to the study, to which Tierramérica had access, the limit for zinc is 2.0 mcg/l, a slight improvement over the current standard of 3.0 mcg/l, but much more lax than the World Bank's 0.5 mcg/l.

For the first time the government is setting parameters for cadmium, which will be 0.1mcg/l, although the international proposal is for an annual average limit of 0.05 mcg/l, according to the ELAW researchers.

Arsenic can cause skin cancer and damage to the lungs, kidneys and prostate, Dr. Hugo Villa told Tierramérica.

Villa is studying the health of residents affected by emissions from the foundry run by the U.S. company Doe Run in the Andean highlands city of La Oroya, population 35,000. He works at the only state-run hospital there.

Making a slight reduction in emissions will not bring about any real improvements in public health, Ana Leyva, head of the Muqui Network, said in a Tierramérica interview.

In the opinion of expert Iván Lanegra, the executive branch's initiative casts aside the idea that environmental laws for the mining sector should comply with international standards.

From 1992 to 2007, Peru's mining and energy companies generated investments of more than 24.1 billion dollars, according to the National Mining Association.

La Oroya is in the central region of Junín. Most of the city’s residents under age six have more than 40 micrograms of lead per decilitre of blood (mcg/dcl), four times higher than the limit set by the World Health Organisation, according to studies conducted by national and international entities in 1999, 2003 and 2005.

Lead poisoning can cause encephalopathy, skin lesions, stunted intellectual development, hyperactivity and aggression.

The ELAW researchers are also concerned that the proposal is to authorise up to 458 milligrams of sulphur dioxide per cubic metre of air, when the World Bank limit only allows 200.

The proposed decree establishes that the emissions limit is subject to the quantity of sulphur introduced in the mining process and, in the case of activities that produce larger amounts of toxins, it sets tolerable limits at between 183 and 458 milligrams per cubic metre.

According to official statistics, as of December 2006, Doe Run emitted 810 tonnes of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere daily.

"In critical public health situations, like La Oroya, a measure like this represents a serious risk," said Mercedes Lu.

CONAM states on its website that when there is a concentration of between 400 and 900 micrograms of sulphur dioxide per cubic metre of air, an increase in respiratory problems among asthmatics is seen in the following 24 hours.

In addition, at 500 mcg/cubic metre, "the health of people with pulmonary and heart diseases worsens," according to CONAM.

Lanegra, who is also manager of Natural Resources and Environmental Management in Junín, told Tierramérica that if the draft proposal takes effect, Doe Run will not be required to comply immediately because the government agreed to extend the compliance period for the company to October 2009.

"As such, the need for standards that match international limits would be the foundation for ensuring the requirement for new mining projects," said Lanegra.

But Leyva believes the project should meet global standards in order to require compliance by Doe Run.

The ELAW experts also recommend participation by local communities in monitoring the measures, and want the Health Ministry to step up its involvement in the matter.

(*Originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

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