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Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2007 05:40 am

Sisters to the rescue

Springfield's Dominicans fight to end the lead poisoning tragedy in Peru

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In a small city in the Andes Mountains, a father takes his 3-year-old daughter to the doctor. She’s sluggish and behaving strangely. “Something’s not right,” he thinks.

He’s shocked, but not surprised, when he hears the news: His child has a blood lead level of 58 micrograms per deciliter, more than five times the recommended limit set by the World Health Organization. The father confronts the suspected source — his employer. They offer him two thousand soles — roughly $700 — to keep quiet. Defeated, the father takes the money for his daughter’s medical bills and returns home to his family.

Stories such as these travel between La Oroya, Peru, and Springfield and between the Dominican sisters in each city who have stepped forward to share them on behalf of those silenced by Doe Run Peru, the company whose metal smelter is accused of spewing lead and other life-threatening toxins into the soil, water, and air for the past decade. According to a recent Saint Louis University study, more than 97 percent of the children in La Oroya have higher-than-normal levels of lead in their blood, often between 50 and 70 micrograms per deciliter. Levels above 10 micrograms are considered unsafe.

“Intertwined through all of this are the stories of the children of La Oroya and their illnesses, and that tugs at anyone’s heart,” says Sister Rose Marie Riley, prioress general of the Dominican Sisters of Springfield, “and for every one of those children there is a mother holding that child, saying, ‘What can I do?’ No family should have to be suffering that.”

The Dominican Sisters of Springfield have served in La Oroya for more than 40 years alongside natives of the city. In 2005, Springfield’s Dominican sisters joined Friends of La Oroya — an international organization initiated in Peru — and have since participated in a three-city delegation calling for an end to the lead poisoning and pollution.

“It was an issue that our sisters in Peru have been talking about and living with with the people for many years,” Sister Rose Marie says, “and so, in my position of leadership, a big part of it is walking with our sisters — wherever they are — which also means walking with their people.”

Sister Mila Díaz Solano understands the plight of the La Oroyans. A native of La Oroya, she lived in the shadow of the smelter’s belching smokestacks. Sister Mila recently returned to visit her family, still living in her childhood home, and again felt the invisible weight that burdens her people.

“When I am in La Oroya, I can feel the carbon monoxide,” she says while visiting Springfield on retreat. “It’s very hard to breathe.”

Doe Run Peru — an affiliate of the St. Louis-based Doe Run Resources Corp. — has run the La Oroya metallurgical complex since purchasing the smelter from the Peruvian government in 1997. Since then, the company reported recently, emissions of particulate matter and heavy metals, including lead, from the main stack of the smelter have fallen within government-set limits.

“There was a neglect on environmental issues by the company and Peruvian state-owned enterprise,” says Victor Andrés Belaúnde, manager of institutional affairs for Doe Run Peru. “We took over the facility in 1997, and for the first time in La Oroya we started to implement a number of environmental procedures to radically improve performance.”

But a new report from LABOR, a Peruvian nonprofit group, asserts that Doe Run’s data are incorrect. Instead, the organization says, its air-monitoring stations show that none of the company’s emissions is within government-set limits and that concentrations of arsenic and sulfur dioxide continue to increase.

Health officials say that exposure to toxic metals damages the nervous and reproductive systems and the kidneys. It leads to high blood pressure and anemia and interferes with metabolism of calcium and vitamin D. High levels of lead are especially harmful to young children and fetuses, causing learning disabilities, behavioral problems, mental retardation, convulsions, coma, and even death.

Sister Mila moved away from the smelter city and its adverse conditions, but, she says, she cannot demand that her mother and brothers do the same. Like many others in La Oroya, her family does not want to leave a lifetime of memories behind.

“When I talk with my brother,” Sister Mila says, “he says, ‘This is our house; we built it together with Dad — I don’t want to leave.’ ”

Others stay in La Oroya because they have no choice; their livelihoods depend on their employment with Doe Run. Because Peru is impoverished, explains Sister Mila, finding jobs is often difficult, even for college graduates. When large companies such as Doe Run offer work, the desperate need to support spouses and children often overrides health concerns.

“The workers know the level of contamination; they know they are making themselves sick, but they have families and they need that job,” Sister Mila says. “It is very hard to say something against the company, because if they lose that job they don’t have anything to survive.”

Sister Adele Human also once lived in La Oroya, but now she resides in Lima. Like many of her Dominican sisters, she became committed to fighting for change after seeing too much sickness and death. Sister Adele says that many children are riddled with cancer and that she was shocked to hear that five women living in the same area each gave birth to a stillborn baby.

“The people at Doe Run would say, ‘It is connected but not connected to us,’ ” Sister Adele says.

Many sisters say that Doe Run uses intimidation to keep La Oroyans from looking more closely at these connections. The company has threatened to close its doors and move elsewhere if its practices are questioned. Because the town’s survival depends on the smelter, they say, many residents pretend that the harmful health effects don’t exist.

“If you don’t believe there is a problem,” Sister Adele says, “you don’t believe there needs to be a cleanup.”

The Dominican Sisters of Springfield and of La Oroya joined forces in June with this mission in mind: to publicize the problem and to call on Doe Run to clean up its smelter.

As part of the first interfaith delegation, comprising Catholic, Jewish, and Presbyterian leaders, the sisters met with executives from Doe Run Peru in Lima and then traveled to St. Louis and New York to discuss the need for corporate responsibility to Doe Run’s affiliate company and its parent company, Renco. Other activist groups have attempted to use environmental or scientific tactics to plead with Doe Run, but this delegation called attention to ethical questions concerning the smelter. They asked that Renco’s chief executive, Ira Rennert — a devout Orthodox Jew and philanthropist — apply the same ethical principles by which he lives his personal life to the situation at the smelter and in La Oroya.

Sister Beth Murphy, a Springfield Dominican who, along with Sister Rose Marie, represented the congregation in St. Louis, says that Rennert could turn his “biggest public-relations nightmare” around if he would only agree to reduce emissions.

“He would be a hero in the environmental movement and would set the standards for mines not only in Peru but all over the world,” Murphy says. “It is puzzling to us why he wouldn’t want to do that.”

Murphy and the Dominican sisters want to make it clear that their mission is not to shut Doe Run Peru down but instead to call on the company’s officials to improve the health of ailing children, provide a cleaner environment for their families, and ensure medical attention for those in need.

“This not about closing down the smelter,” Murphy says. “This is not what we’re asking for. We believe jobs and good health can coexist in La Oroya.”

Sister Adele says that she feels that these messages were heard in Lima, where she represented the Dominican congregation. Delegates were provided with booklets detailing Doe Run Peru’s environmental actions and statistics of decreasing emissions, she says, and the meeting was cordial. She calls it a big step in the right direction.

“I think if they will take the time to sit around and listen and know the worries and questions that other people have,” Sister Adele says, “there can be progress made.”

The Dominican sisters visiting the American cities were not as well received. Sister Mila represented the sisters in New York City, where Rennert rejected the delegation. The success of the operation, says Sister Mila, instead came from the delegates’ opportunity to speak with journalists about La Oroya and its people.

Doe Run officials also refused to meet with the St. Louis delegation, but the Springfield Dominicans say that they were grateful for the chance to stand with their Peruvian sisters, especially during a visit to Doe Run’s smelter in Herculaneum, Mo., south of St. Louis.

Murphy says that the delegates from Peru looked around, amazed, by the presence of grass and absence of black smoke. They were impressed, she says, because conditions in severely lead-polluted Herculaneum are so much better than those in La Oroya.

The Springfield Dominicans also saw the delegation as an opportunity to learn from their Peruvian counterparts.

“It’s just been a wonderful benefit for me to get to know them and to see, in a different way, what they’re dealing with every day in their ministry in Peru,” Murphy says. “That has been true not just for me but, ultimately, that’s a good thing for our community north and south.”

Despite the protests of the Dominicans and other activist groups, Belaúnde holds that Doe Run Peru has been working to clean up the toxins left by the smelter’s previous owners. He that says in early 2007 Doe Run Peru decided to increase its investment in environmental programs from $107 million to $250 million to help improve the health of La Oroya’s children and pregnant mothers.

“The health issues of La Oroya are very complex,” Belaúnde says. “There is a facility that has been working here for 85 years, and during the first 75 years they followed no environmental procedures. We as a company are doing more than our fair part of what has to be done.”

Doe Run Peru also provided $1 million to the Ministry of Health to create a program to address children’s excessive blood lead levels. This program tracks the blood lead levels of affected children and pregnant mothers and buses children daily to a daycare facility, 10 miles outside La Oroya, where they receive nutritional and health assistance.

It is a model program that has already been successful in reducing blood lead levels, says Belaúnde. He admits that more work needs to be done, though, and the Dominicans agree.

“Doe Run is not responsible for all of the damage that has been done in the past and what they inherited,” Murphy says, “but they are certainly responsible for remediating the situation — they do have some responsibility to try to help the people of La Oroya.”

The Dominican Sisters of Springfield will continue to spread awareness on the local and national levels, Murphy says, to let Doe Run know that people are watching. She hopes that eventually Doe Run Peru will find a way to reduce the emissions as Doe Run did for the U.S. smelter.

“There is a kind of environmental apartheid we practice, so if our lead and other metals can be smelted in a place where people are poor and don’t have the power to fight the companies, it’s OK,” she says, “but it’s not. Those families have the same hopes and dreams for their children as we have for ours here in Springfield.”

Contact Amanda Robert at arobert@illinoistimes.com.

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