Stop the Poisoning of Peru

Against the Current, No. 42, January/February 1993

Hugo Blanco

METAL MINING ACTIVITIES began in the south of Peru in the 1960s, in copper deposits at Toquepala and the foundry at Ilo. With it began one of the greatest problems of environmental contamination from which our country still suffers. This increased in 1976 with the exploitation of deposits at Cuajone and the enlargement of the smelter at Ilo.

All of this has been carried out by a North American transnational, Southern Peru Copper Corporation Inc. (SPCC), with the complicity of government authorities in spite of denunciations and the laws formulated
over the past thirty years.

Waste Waters

SPCC uses good quality water that comes from Lake Suches and the creeks Honda and Tocalaya (basin of the Locumba River) and also from groundwater. The company’s estimated average water use is 1.11 cubic meters per second; what is not utilized is conducted by long canals, causing drought down to the end of the Locumba River where it flows into the sea.

The flow of waste waters has a volume around 36.4 million cubic meters per year, of which 11.6 million are solids–silica, alumina, calcium oxides, magnesium, manganese, potassium, iron, relatively high concentrations of copper and lesser proportions of lead and arsenic–and 24.8 million are water. The environmental impact can be seen in the destruction at English Beach and damage caused by sediments and turbid water to underwater rocky habitats and intermarine habitats.

Submarine, intermarine and benthic (ocean floor) fauna have disappeared; there also exists a high quantity of toxic materials in tissues of the remaining fauna. River Shrimp have disappeared, and the intermarine fauna have been reduced in quite distant areas–as in the case of the mollusk “Chorito,” a popular food.

In social-economic terms the problems are equally worrisome, including:

* Elimination of the River Shrimp, which served food and commercial needs of the local population.

* Disappearance of the beach at Ite and English Beach, which were places of recreation.

* Reduction of fish and shellfish for human consumption.

* Loss of agricultural land in the lower sector of the Locumba River Valley (Ite).

* Impossibility of future recovery of mineral resources (soluble copper and other metals) discharged with waste water into the sea.

* Ecological damage including reduction of ecosystem productivity, degradation of the quality of life in the region and a general decrease in the availibility and quality of natural resources.

If current levels of waste water production continue, the beach will be filled in to form a straight coast and a lateral expansion of the rocky habitat, producing a severe reduction of the shellfish population and of fauna in the sediments of the open sea.

Sulfurous Gases, Solid Wastes

Contamination from the emission of sulfurous gases (sulfur dioxide) from the Ilo foundry has been established as affecting the city of the same name, the valleys of the Ilo and Tambo rivers, and the farms located north of the foundry. The foundry’s chimneys put out some 2000 metric tons daily. These gases through oxidation and hydration form compounds of sulfuric acid, resulting in acid rain.

Solid wastes are deposited in the soils, originating from the fusion of mineral concentrates and contaminated by particles of heavy metals. The discharge of these wastes is approximately 2000 metric tons daily, which were being dumped into the sea and now, after various pressures, are deposited in nearby zones north of the foundry and very close to the sea. The deposits of these wastes alter the landscape and the coastal marine ecosystems, and reduce artisan fishing.

Inaction of the State

Lamentably, the role of state institutions has been almost nil, and in many cases these institutions have been accomplices to transgressions of law and, in extreme cases, have instituted norms favoring the SPCC. There are innumerable proven accusations that former state authorities are working today for this transnational as payment for their “loyal” behavior during their terms in office.

SPCC is legally obliged to reorganize all their methods for elimination of waste waters, gases and material wastes in order to end environmental contamination; thus we have for example the Code of the Environment, norms decreed by the Controller General of the Republic, norms proposed by the Permanent Multisectoral Commission on the Environment, etc.

SPCC continues to disregard its agreements with the government. In spite of studies by three international companies with extensive experience in changing the deposition of waste waters and treatment of gas emissions, the SPCC continues to interpose applications to postpone fulfilling the agreements.

Since 1960, when they began their mining operations, SPCC knew they needed to invest in projects for environmental protection. This was reinforced in 1987 with the creation of the Multisector Technical Commission and in 1989 with the approval of Supreme Decree 020-89-PCM, the Integral Plan for solving the environmental contamination generated by SPCC.

Moreover, on October 17, 1991 the company presented a schedule of investments to the Ministry of Energy and Mines. They argue now, however, that they lack funds to comply with the law and need time to obtain them. This reflects not just a lack of planning, but also a lack of commitment to reverse the environmental and social calamity they have set in motion. This attitude is not in keeping with the immense publicity SPCC has released to create the image of a company that identifies with the protection of the environment.

Community Action

There have been many actions in defense of the environment of southern Peru, by the population of Ilo and many national and international institutions, but these have not resulted in a large enough movement to stop the contaminating activities of SPCC. Undoubtedly many of these actions have not been united or broad enough to win the majority of Peruvians to this important cause. It is urgent that forces be centralized to generate a large national and international movement to force Southern Peru Copper Corporation to comply with existing laws and repair the damages that have occurred.

January-February 1993, ATC 42