Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Mantaro River Tragedy


The Mantaro River Tragedy

The Mantaro River’s headwaters are in the heart of the Peruvian Andes. From there it winds its course, fed by many smaller tributaries, eventually flowing into the fertile Mantaro valley, the breadbasket of Peru. It is the source of water for agricultural irrigation and electricity. Historically, it was also a source of food for the local indigenous peoples. However today, the river is dead. Not only can its polluted waters no longer sustain life, the river carries within it toxins that potentially can poison the food crops that it irrigates.

Several independent studies have been done and their findings all confirm the deadly truth about the Mantaro and its tributaries: the river is a dumping ground for toxic substances from mining activities. The Doe Run Peru smelting plant found along the rivers’ course in La Oroya creates sulfuric acid, arsenic, cadmium, cyanide, mercury and lead as waste products of their processing. Some of these toxins are released directly into the air or water; some become embedded in the soil or in slag piles. It all has to end up somewhere, the contamination doesn't just disappear.

The Doe Run Peru smelter’s main smokestack spews out 3,000 pounds of lead PER DAY on average. The plant also emits 1,620,000 pounds of sulphur dioxide a day, four times higher than allowed by Peruvian law, according to the Ministry of Energy and Mines. In La Oroya Antigua, the oldest part of town closest to the smelting plant, arsenic levels in the topsoil are 393 times the Canadian standard and the cadmium levels are 138 times the Canadian maximum permitted levels.

Studies have conclusively linked these toxins with extremely high lead blood levels in children in La Oroya. But the impact is far greater than just the town’s people of La Oroya. The same CONAMA report warned that the acid pollution and the dumping of mine waste was threatening the health of a chain of lakes that feed into the Mantaro River, the source of irrigation for the fertile Mantaro valley.

What happens when contaminated water is used for irrigation? What happens to the food grown there, the food that the people of Lima count on? Significant amounts of cadmium, arsenic, zinc and copper have been found in the soils of Orcotuna, an area of artichoke cultivation irrigated by water from the Mantaro River. The irrigation channel feeding Orcotuna is laden with heavy metals: 1.5 tons of copper, 3.2 tons of iron, 1.45 tons of lead and 1.4 tons of arsenic are dumped annually. Where does it all end up?

The Yauli River forms part of the Mantaro River basin. Above La Oroya, its lead levels are three times higher than the Peruvian standard for agricultural and livestock use. After the tributary flows through La Oroya, its lead levels are 16 times higher. Clearly, the gigantic Doe Run smelting plant is a heavy contributor to the pollution of the river system. So what are they doing about it?

In 2002, Doe Run started a supportive program to improve irrigation and agricultural productivity in the Mantaro Valley by removing more than 60 years of accumulated mud and debris from a channel of the river. More recently, they donated 52 steel sluice gates to help improve irrigation and help with flood prevention. The company manager is pleased to help reduce contamination and improve agriculture in the valley, but did they really? Are the emissions any less than before? And how much has Doe Run's policy of dumping toxic wastes into the river really changed?

Will the river ever again be able to sustain life? And is the food produced in the Mantaro Valley and watered by this river system safe to eat? Controlled studies done in the United Kingdom clearly show the effects of heavy metals on vegetables. And it isn't good. Safety of a nation’s food source is critical. If studies were done in the Mantaro River valley that proved their produce is poisoned from this contamination, it would be catastrophic. It would be devastating for both the 53,000 local farmers and the urban population of Lima dependent upon the Mantaro River valley for much of its food source. At this price, how can Peru ever consider permitting an industrialist like Ira Rennert to continue his polluting ways?