Herculaneum, Missouri and La Oroya, Peru. I’ve never been to the former but, when I visited La Oroya in 1975 (about a year after the Peruvian military government had nationalized it), it looked and felt one of those dark, rainy, cold scenes in a dystopian film (like Blade Runner) or, closer to home, the South Works in Chicago. From what I’ve read, Herculaneum was no better.
As it turns out, the two cities are closely connected: the Doe Run Co., one of the world’s largest lead producers (and part of the Renco Group, the private holding company of New York mining mogul Ira Rennert), has operated smelters in both places.* And, in both company towns, workers and their families have suffered high levels of lead poisoning.
As Mother Jones explained back in 2006:
The story of these two towns and how they found each other illustrates an increasingly common pattern: A company faced with mounting public pressure and environmental costs in the United States expands its dirty operations abroad, where regulations are lax, labor costs low, and natural resources abundant–and where impoverished people become dependent on the jobs and charity of the very business that causes them harm.
After decades of battles, beginning with an ugly labor dispute in the early 1990s and dozens of lawsuits, the Herculaneum smelter was finally closed (in 2013), after Doe Run decided not to make the investments necessary to meet U.S. Clean Air standards. Now, it’s part of the Southwest Jefferson County Mining Site, a superfund project.
Smelting operations in La Oroya, on the other hand, which in 2013 was classified (by the Blacksmith Institute) as the fifth least recommended city to live on the planet (based on the presence of heavy metals, mercury, arsenic, pesticides and radionuclides in air, soil and water samples and the number of people exposed to pollution), may soon be reopened. Peru’s new president, former Wall Street executive Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, “says Peru needs to relax air-quality standards to attract investors to buy and restart the century-old complex, which processes mineral concentrates into high-value metals for export.”
“Why send concentrate to China or elsewhere when you could smelt it here?” Mr. Kuczynski, who took office Thursday, said in an interview recently. “To do that, you have to have environmental standards that are realistic.”
*This is the same Rennert who, in 2015, was found guilty of looting his bankrupt magnesium producer (to the tune of $117 million) and, earlier this year, was forced to restore full pension benefits for 1,350 retired steelworkers who worked at Renco’s bankrupt RG Steel unit. Doe Run Peru halted operations at La Oroya in 2009. The smelter is now controlled by Doe Run’s former creditors, who have until 27 August to find a new buyer. Kuczynski is now trying to extend the liquidation deadline.