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Rights court condemns Peru over one of world’s most polluted towns

The Andean city of La Oroya, situated in a high-altitude valley at 3,750 meters (12,300 feet), is home to a heavy metal smelter that has poisoned residents and the environment for almost a century
The Andean city of La Oroya, situated in a high-altitude valley at 3,750 meters (12,300 feet), is home to a heavy metal smelter that has poisoned residents and the environment for almost a century - Copyright AFP/File Ernesto BENAVIDES
The Andean city of La Oroya, situated in a high-altitude valley at 3,750 meters (12,300 feet), is home to a heavy metal smelter that has poisoned residents and the environment for almost a century - Copyright AFP/File Ernesto BENAVIDES
Alberto PEÑA

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights said Friday that Peru had violated residents’ “right to live in a healthy environment” in an Andean mining town considered one of the most polluted places on earth.

The city of La Oroya, situated in a high-altitude valley at 3,750 meters (12,300 feet), is home to a heavy metal smelter that has poisoned residents and the environment for almost a century.

A group of La Oroya residents filed suit against the Peruvian government, demanding it take action against the pollution.

The town has often featured on lists of the most polluted places on the planet, rubbing shoulders with sites like Ukraine’s nuclear-sullied Chernobyl and Russia’s Dzerzhinsk, the site of Cold War-era factories which produced chemical weapons.

In its ruling, which is binding, the Costa Rica-based court blamed the Peruvian State “for the violation of the rights to a healthy environment, health, personal integrity, a dignified life… to the detriment of the 80 victims” who filed the lawsuit.

The court ordered that Peru carry out an analysis of the contamination of the air, water and soil in La Oroya, provide free medical care to the victims, and adapt the allowed standards for lead, sulfur dioxide, arsenic, mercury and particulate matter.

“We have waited for this for more than 20 years,” said Yolanda Zurita, one of the plaintiffs, who now lives in the town of Matahuasi about 60 kilometers (37 miles) from La Oroya.

The 65-year-old said pollution in her former home did not “allow her to be a mother,” without giving further details. She also suffers from seizures and problems with her lungs and pancreas.

“We have achieved our justice, the ruling is in favor of the people who were contaminated,” plaintiff Manuel Enrique Apolinario, a 68-year-old retired teacher, told AFP by telephone from La Oroya.

“Now the Peruvian State has to fully comply with the sentence.”

– ‘Significant risk to health’ –

Since 1922, the gigantic smelter that was long the economic heartbeat of La Oroya has processed copper, zinc, lead, gold, selenium, and other minerals from nearby mines.

The court said the complex “has had a significant impact on the environment, contaminating the air, water and soil.”

The ruling also said that “exposure to lead, cadmium, arsenic and sulfur dioxide constituted a significant risk to the health of the victims, and they did not receive adequate medical care from the State.”

In 2013, the International Federation for Human Rights said that 97 percent of La Oroya children aged between six months and six years, and 98 percent aged between seven and 12, had elevated levels of lead in their blood.

The smelting complex went bankrupt in 2009 — crippling the town’s economy — but re-opened last year under the management of a company made up of almost 1,300 shareholders — many of whom are former foundry workers.

The new administration has promised not to further pollute the town, where small houses cluster around towering black chimneys, surrounded by ashen mountain slopes corroded by heavy metals and long devoid of vegetation.

AFP
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With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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