Published: February 18, 2005
Interview with Dr. Patrick Moore, February 18, 2005
Private US metals company Doe Run purchased the controversial La Oroya polymetallic smelter-refinery in Peru’s central Lima department in 1997, at which time the company was given until the end of 2006 to implement an environmental cleanup program at the plant.
However, the company was recently granted a four-year extension to complete this program. Although Doe Run receives strong support from the La Oroya locals, the plant’s environmental record has often been criticized by environmental groups and other people living further away from the plant.
BNamericas spoke to one of Greenpeace’s founders, Dr Patrick Moore, who recently visited the plant. Dr Moore is now a strong proponent of consensus politics, which aims to find a common ground between environmental and business concerns.
BNamericas: You recently visited Doe Run’s La Oroya plant in Peru. In what capacity did the company invite you?
Dr Moore: I was a guest of Doe Run’s. They invited me to come on a fact-finding tour to see the plant for myself. I have been involved in environmental issues all my life. I was a founder member of Greenpeace in 1971 and in the mid 1980s I decided to shift from confrontation politics to consensus politics and try to figure out how to find solutions to our environmental problems.
To put it simply, every one of us who drives a car has a lead acid battery under their hoods and so unless we want to give up our cars we have to face the fact that we need these metals to be extracted from the earth.
BNamericas: So you would say we need companies like Doe Run?
Dr Moore: Well, we need companies that are not only able to extract the metals efficiently but are also good corporate and community citizens. I believe very strongly in corporate social responsibility. I don’t believe it should be used for blackmail but I do believe that corporations have a responsibility to be good citizens.
BNamericas: Was this a paid visit or did Doe Run just cover your expenses?
Dr Moore: I was retained actually during the trip. The fact-finding part was not paid for but I was paid to appear on a video discussing the findings that I had down there, so yes, there was payment involved.
BNamericas: You don’t feel this impacted on your objectivity?
Dr Moore: No. I only work for companies that I am convinced are trying their very best to deal with the issues of environmental and social sustainability.
BNamericas: In a recent article you wrote on La Oroya, you said that lead levels in the blood of workers has fallen by 27%, while air lead emissions fell by 21%. Where did you get your information?
Dr Moore: The company actually had a study done according to the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) protocol. The CDC is a US-based organization, so it was done according to a standard accepted worldwide.
The study measured blood lead levels and these are by far the best way to determine chronic exposure to lead in the air and in the water – for lead being ingested. They’ve done these tests before and I’m satisfied with the rigor of their science.
BNamericas: You obviously feel these results are positive but Doe Run took over the La Oroya plant in 1997. Given that amount of time, are these reductions enough?
Dr Moore: No, they’re not. The really big expenses are enclosing the smelter and building the sulfuric acid plant to remove the sulfur from the chimney emissions. The two big things are fugitive emissions and sulfur dioxide. These old smelters were built in the open air with a corrugated iron roof on top just to keep the rain out and the air was just allowed to flow through, so fugitive emissions from the smelter is a really big problem. In order to deal with this you actually have to contain the entire structure and then put on filtration systems for the air coming out. The sulfur dioxide emissions are less of a health concern than the lead, which is why they’re tackling the lead first.
If you went there and saw the sheer size of this operation and how what they inherited had absolutely no pollution control of any kind, it’s like something out of the 1920s, in fact it is out of the 1920s. It’s really old. When the company went in there they made a commitment to have the pollution control finished by [the end of 2006].
The reason they have applied for a new permit, which is basically a time extension, is because once they got on the ground and took a look at the situation, they thought at first that dealing with the sulfur emissions would be the number one priority. But the information they obtained led them to believe that dealing with the lead emissions was the number one priority. It’s taken them a while to figure out how to deal with that, frankly.
In addition to that, metal prices were so low in the years after they purchased the operation that they simply didn’t have the cash flow to move forward as quickly as they wished. Now that metal prices are back up to a better level, they feel that they can meet these commitments by 2011.
In other words, they asked for a five-year extension. They do have the budget in place now to deal with this. This sulfuric acid plant is a massive undertaking to take the sulfur out of the air emissions and make sulfuric acid out of it, which is then the beneficial use of a by-product or waste product. They can sell the sulfuric acid – it won’t be a money-making operation but it will be some recovery of the cost.
BNamericas: Taking into account what you said about metal prices being low when Doe Run took over the La Oroya plant, do you nevertheless feel that their timescale is a little slow? After all, this is people’s health we’re talking about.
Dr Moore: Again, if you went there and looked at the magnitude of the situation, you would see why it takes years to solve these problems. It’s a huge, huge facility and short of tearing the whole thing down and starting all over again – which would end production for years – I believe their intention is to retrofit rather than rebuild. Yes, everybody would like it to be done tomorrow but it can’t be done in that short a time. In addition, they are making progress in terms of a steady reduction in lead levels in people.
You also have to remember that the standards today are much more strict than they were even 10 or 20 years ago. The standards that Doe Run is using for the blood lead levels are the same as the standards that would be used in the US and they are reasonably close to meeting them.
The lead levels that we’re talking about are in the parts per billion. It’s true that the people in La Oroya have higher blood lead levels than they should but it is not like a serious epidemic problem. They don’t have lead levels to the extent that it would start killing people or anything. In some ways, the larger problem from a chronic health point of view is the sulfur emissions, because people with respiratory problems are susceptible to them. I spoke to the doctor who was part of a Doe Run funded clinic in La Oroya and his main concern is the respiratory side of things.
In the meantime, the company enjoys virtually unanimous support from the community itself to the point where people come out and demonstrate in favor of the company because it’s their lifeblood. If the company wasn’t there, this community would suffer tremendously. So it is hard for me to understand why some groups are basically saying that the company should get out of there. They are trying to prevent it from a path that is feasible.
Doe Run leaving wouldn’t benefit the community one bit – the community wouldn’t be there anymore. Where are these people going to go? The economy in Peru is already in such a desperate state that at least an operation like this is providing people with the ability to stay alive and feed their families. At the same time, the commitment is there to reduce the pollution to international norms.
BNamericas: Has the problem of water contamination improved?
Dr Moore: Yes, and in my view it is not a human health problem. La Oroya is a whole different operation from when [the Peruvian government ran the plant]. They [Doe Run] have planted tens of thousands of trees throughout the community. They are paying for free lunch for children every day, they are supporting health care and health clinics, they are supporting education, they are helping the farmers build a creamery and cheese plant. They are really doing a lot of good social work and they are doing it at their own expense.
Dr Patrick Moore has a PhD. in ecology. He was a founder member of Greenpeace in 1971 and was a full-time director of the organization for 15 years, during which time he spent seven years on the company’s international board.
In the mid 1980s, Dr Moore began to distance himself from confrontational environmentalism and began seeking more consensus-based methods of resolving environmental, social, and economic issues, which often brought him into conflict with many of his former colleagues. Dr Moore is the founder, chair and chief scientists of Greenspirit Strategies.
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Greenspirit Strategies works with leading organizations in forestry, mining, biotechnology, aquaculture and plastics to develop solutions in the areas of natural resources, biodiversity, energy and climate change. Greenspirit Strategies has led delegations to the UN at Geneva, New York, the Hague and Johannesburg, has appeared before US municipal councils and met with many Fortune 500 companies on the issue of sustainable procurement.
By Aiden Corkery