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Peruvian Court Orders Relief for Victims of Lead Poisoning by U.S.-Owned Smelter

Once in a while, a court gives you a victory that makes you realize the long hard fight has been worth it. That's what happened in our work to protect human health and the environment in La Oroya, Peru, a city where a smelter owned by the Missouri-based Doe Run company causes lead-poisoning in thousands of children. The health impacts of the extreme arsenic, cadmium, and sulfur dioxide contamination are less well understood, but likely just as problematic in the long term.

In the summer of 2006, Peru's highest court—the Constitutional Court—issued a decision that agreed with us on all points. After a four-year legal battle in a case brought by our Peruvian partners in AIDA, the Peruvian Environmental Law Society (SPDA), the court finally ordered the Ministry of Health to declare a state of emergency in the city, and to immediately provide health care for those harmed by the contamination, especially children and pregnant women.

In its precedent-setting ruling, the court emphasized that it doesn't matter what sort of agreement the government may have with the Doe Run—the duty to protect public health lies squarely with the government, and there is no excuse for not doing so. The court also noted that plans and studies underway are not proof of adequate government control, and that the authorities must take effective actions to produce concrete improvements. The court gave the Health Ministry 30 days to comply with the ruling.

This victory is another in a string of encouraging developments in Peru. In May, after the most thorough environmental review and public participation process ever conducted by the agency, the Peruvian Ministry of Energy and Mines issued a new Environmental Management Plan for the La Oroya smelter. Although the plan gives Doe Run additional time to comply with certain environmental measures, it also incorporates a number of new environmental requirements and for the first time establishes enforcement deadlines and fines in the case of non-compliance. In fact, although belatedly, the new plan incorporates almost every suggestion we have made to the Peruvian government during our eight years of work in La Oroya. Perhaps not coincidentally, both the court's ruling and the stronger management plan came after Earthjustice and our partners submitted a Petition for Precautionary Measures requesting intervention by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission on behalf of La Oroya residents.

Some ask why we care so much about public health in La Oroya. After all, it is a remote mountain city thousands of miles away, with little biodiversity of significance. The answer is not only because 90-plus percent of the children in the town carry horrendous concentrations of lead in their blood. It is not merely that as American consumers, it is our moral responsibility to ensure that the lead for our car batteries is not produced in a way that poisons or kills people. Nor is it only that, as shown by recent studies of contamination in US national parks, the pollutants that affect our environment often come from industrial sources in foreign countries and even other continents. Rather, in the Earthjustice International Program, we work on cases like this for the precedents they establish for environmental protection world-wide. We strive to protect the global environment by promoting stronger environmental laws in other nations, and by building capacity among the civil society organizations and government actors that will help protect that environment. Our successes in places such as La Oroya inspire other efforts and establish precedents for environmental protection throughout the Americas.

As is always the case, the question now for La Oroya is whether the court decision and the new plan will be appropriately enforced. You can rest assured that Earthjustice, AIDA, and our Peruvian partners will be watching closely to make sure this happens.

The Spanish text of the court ruling is online.