My head pounded, my eyes and throat burned. The dust in the air covered my hand like gray volcanic ash. I coughed repeatedly. There was so much poison in the air, you could taste it.
It was October 2002, I was in La Oroya, Peru, a small mining town nestled deep in the Central Andes. La Oroya was a company town, and the company happened to be based in St. Louis, which is why I was there.
The Doe Run Company, which also owns and operates a smelter in Herculaneum, bought the massive Peruvian smelter at auction from the government of Peru. When Doe Run purchased the plant in 1997, it was pumping nearly 2,000,000 pounds of pollution out of the main stack every day. Other buildings gushed smoke and dust (the pictures in this post are from 2002). Tests conducted over the years showed virtually all of the children living near the plant had lead poisoning.
Doe Run inherited an environmental and public health nightmare. Doe Run bought the smelter complex for $121 million, roughly 12 cents on the dollar for what it believed it would cost to build the same facility in 1997. The Peruvian government required Doe Run to spend another $125 million (a total of $246 million) on improvments to the plant designed to reduce pollution as soon as possible. Doe Run had ten years to finish all of the requirements of the environmental program.
Doe Run insisted that it significantly reduced pollution over the years, but Peruvian records dispute that. I saw less smoke and tasted less metal in the air during my visits in the summer of 2005, but the air seemed to burn more, and it was still extremely uncomfortable breathing there, especially during the late morning and early afternoon when sulfur dioxide levels were highest in the town.
Now, twelve years later, following a series of changes and a three year extension, Doe Run Peru isn't close to meeting the October deadline for all the conditions in the environmental agreement. The company, which says it suffers from critical financial and credit problems, is asking for another extension. Doe Run is owned by New York billionaire Ira Rennert. Rennert lives in a $200 million mansion with 29 bedrooms and 39 bathrooms.
I returned to La Oroya in February 2005 for a follow-up series of reports on KMOV. I traveled there in March, June and August of 2005 as a freelance journalist. One of my stories was published in the Sunday edition of the Dallas Morning News.
Here's a link to one of our stories in February 2005. Yesterday, the New York Times reported on the situation in La Oroya.
My visits to La Oroya had a dramatic impact on me. I returned from there seven years ago with a renewed enthusiasm for mission work and a much greater appreciation for the trust strangers place in journalists, and the impact our stories can have on society.
I tweeted about the Doe Run story. You can see my news and investigative updates on Twitter. My username is InsideNews4.