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Toxic Outrage: A Review of “Toxic Lead Smelting in La Oroya, Peru

George Leonard May 21, 2007

smeltinginperu

Toxic Outrage: Toxic Lead Smelting in La Oroya, Peru
Earthjustice, 2006

Since taking over smelting operations in La Oroya, Peru, in 1997, The Doe Run Company has been operating with a blatant disregard for the human and natural community around its facility. Doe Run is a natural resource company based in St. Louis, Missouri, that focuses on mining, smelting and recycling. According to a 2005 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, after almost a decade of operation in La Oroya, no emission control had been implemented, the extent of soil contamination had not been determined and no remediation projects were in development. This contempt for the well-being of the communities of La Oroya causes incalculable human damage. Every one of the 35,000 inhabitants suffers from lead intoxication, a condition that causes learning disabilities, vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, headache, anemia, seizure and coma, conditions to which children are most vulnerable.

Earthjustice, a public-interest environmental protection group, produced a video called “Toxic Lead Smelting Operation in La Oroya, Peru” that is distributed through their website, a youTube account and various blogs. The group hopes to close the outrage vacuum surrounding Doe Run’s conduct by bringing images of the crisis back into the communities that support and benefit from Doe Run’s existence.

Videos of soot pouring out of stacks and enormous slag heaps remind us of the unpleasant realities of an industry that is virtually unchecked by environmental or health regulations, thanks in large part to the World Trade Organization. An activist interviewed in the video recounts the promises that were made to the Peruvian people when the La Oroya facility was privatized in 1997.

An influx of money and new technology, it was claimed, would have a significant impact on the contamination levels seen in the area. However, a protest that includes a display of goats so ill from exposure to toxins that one dies during the demonstration confirms the obvious: for Doe Run, life is an expendable commodity that can be consumed to generate profit.

Earthjustice’s video walks the line between journalism and documentary, rapid reporting and indepth analysis. One of the stated goals of their media campaign is to close the gap between educa-tion and action. The challenge is to find production and distribution methods that effectively combat Doe Run’s tactics to maintain the status quo. The company’s racist proposition that La Oroya is a problem that can be ignored is countered in Earthjustice’s video by its empowerment of personal perspectives. Moving the camera through the community spaces that are rejected and suppressed by the mining company documents the context in which Doe Run’s actions and ideas take effect, a context the company works to keep as alien as possible.

Doe Run’s strategy takes advantage of a disturbing cultural phenomenon: that the outrageousness of an action decreases with distance. Journalism can also have the effect of providing educative material about an event while retaining the sense of alienation viewers feel towards the people and ideas presented.

Hopefully this video and others like it will present media as a tool to educate people, and at the same time, encourage engagement engagement in movements to end these ridiculous abuses of people and other living beings. The tide might be turning on Doe Run, who are facing increasing pressure from labor unions in Peru, and a groundswell of criticism directed at another smelting facility located in Herculaneum, Missouri.

This video is available at: youtube.com/watch?v=gY6WXa9aKrM.

—George Leonard

George Leonard manages the video page for themire.org. This column highlights activist videos and explores the way media is used to inform and organize social movements.