You are on page 1of 11

TheCityThatMiningAte

WRITTENBYARTHURHOLLANDMICHEL
October10,2014//10:40AMEST

Asthehighestminingcityintheworldgetsswallowed,literally,bymining,therearesurprising
momentsofbrightness.Butthere'snosilverlining.

IwashungrywhenwestoppedinLaOroya,aribbonofatowninadeepvalleyinthehigh
PeruvianSierra.Thecartriphadbeenlongandwinding,andwestillhadawaystogo.Atthese
altitudes,thereisntalotofreallygoodstufftoeat,exceptfortrout.Iwantedtoeatone.Aswe
walkedintoarestaurant,wepassedarowofshinynewToyotapickups,thedefactomodeof
transportationfortheengineerswhomaintainthegiganticminingoperationsinthearea.Mytrout
wasdelicious.Ithadgolden,crispyskinandmoistpinkfleshandtastedextremelyfresh.Itwasalso
probablylacedwithtoxicchemicals.

LaOroyaiswidelyconsideredtobeoneofthemostpollutedplacesonthefaceofour
fairearth.TheBlacksmithInstitute,aNewYorkbasedenvironmentalgroup,listeditintheirtop
ten.A2005studyfoundthat97percentofchildrenundersixherehavetoxiclevelsofleadintheir
blood.Thevalleywas,atonetime,sopollutedthatthehillsoneithersidearenowa
ghostly,bleachedwhite.

Thecauseofthispollutionisa92yearoldsmelterandmetallurgiccomplexnowownedbyDoe
RunPeru,asubsidiaryofUSminingcompanyDoeRun.Amida$600milliondebtandslumping
metalsprices,theplaceissaidtobeupforsale.Whenit'soperating,thesmelterthelargest
polymetallicsmelterintheAmericascanprocess122,000tonsofleadeachyear,and43,000tons
ofzinc.

Thismetalgetspackedintotrains,whichpassalongthehighestrailwayintheAmericas,andwill
headdowntotheportofCallao,tobeshippedoutallovertheworldandputintothingslikeyour
iPhone.DoeRunhasinvestedinemissioncontrolsystems,watertreatmentplantsandhealth
programs,communitydevelopmentandjobtrainingprograms.ButLaOroyaissaddledwith
decadesofheavymetalcontamination,someofwhichultimatelyendsupinthetroutand,much
morecrucially,thehumanswholivehere.

Somehow,Icouldhavegoneforanothertrout.Butwewereheadingevendeeperintomine
country,toacitythatisarguablyevenmoretoxicandevenmoreincomprehensible.

CerrodePascoisfreezingcoldandinfinitelygrey.Atnearly14,000feetabovesealevel,it'sthe
highestcityinPeru,andbasedonthesizeofitspopulationabout70,000itclaimstobethe
highestcityintheworld.Youcanfeelitinyourhead.It'sbasicallyimpossiblenottogetsome
degreeofaltitudesicknesshere.Everythingtastesofmetal.Nobodyseemshappy.Thelocal
delicacyisakindofsweetporridgemadeoutofrottenpotatoes.Itisakindofhell.

Andinitscenterisasightjustasdizzying:RaulRojas,anopenpitmine1.2mileswideanda
quarterofamiledeep,thatisslowlyovertakingacityofthousands.

AmapofCerrodePasco.Image:Google.

Asyoumightimagine,thereareconsiderablelogisticalandenvironmentalchallengeswhenamine
sitsatthecenterofacity,whichinthiscaseisaplacewithasewerandplumbing,schools,
hospitals,andhomes.

A2006reportbyPeru'sCivilDefenseInstitutesaidthat85percentofthehomesalongtheedgeof
thepitarebasicallyuninhabitable.In2007,astudyfundedbytheUSCenterforDisease
Controlfoundthat91percentofchildrenand82percentofwomenofreproductiveagehadlevels
ofatleastoneheavymetalabovetherecommendedrangetheeffectsofwhichcanbekidney
failure,liverdamage,stuntedgrowthandintellectualdisabilities.

Thecitylooksasifit'sbeingstretchedarounditsedges.Miningbeganherehundredsofyearsago
aroundthearea'smassivesilverdeposits,buttheseandmanyothermetalsareharderandharderto
find.Halfofthecity'scolonialquarterhasalreadybeendisappeared,andinthepastfewmonthsthe
mine'scurrentowners,aPeruviancorporationcalledVolcan,havebeenbuyingupwhatremains,
determinedtogetatthevaluablezinc,copperandleadsittingbeneaththecitycenter,andinsisting
thatitisn'tresponsiblefortheextensivedamagetotheenvironment.

Anexpansionofthepitseemsimminent.Inthemid2000s,thecompanyproposedtomovemostof
the67,000residentstonewhousingdevelopmentsinaplacecalledVilladePasco,aboutseven
kilometersaway.Butin2009,the$322millionprojectwasputonhold,partlyoveradisputeabout
howtopayforit.(Asimilarplan,hatchedfourdecadesago,alsofailed.)

Now,theresidentsofCerrodePascosome4,000ofwhomworkdirectlyforthemine,andallof
whomdependuponitinsomewayarestuckinathoroughlymodernpredicament:prevent
Volcanfromcontinuingtoswallowthelandbutrisklosingthecity'smonolithiceconomic
engineorallowtheminetokeepgrowing,poweringthelocalworkforcebuttarnishingthe
environmentandstretchingthecitytoitslimits.Whilefewpeopleherecanimaginelifewithoutthe
mine,severalresidentsIspoketosaidtheirbestbetatthispointwouldsimplybetoleave.

ThesuburbofCarhuamacasitsatthefootofagiantheapofpoisonousrocktailings.Image:EduardoValdez

RaulRojas,whichwasnamedafteraminerkilledduringastrike,wasopenedinthe1950sbut
mininghasexistedinthislocationsince1630.Bythemiddleofthe1800s,thecitythen
sometimesreferredtoas"TheOpulentCity"wasresponsibleforonethirdofPerussilver,and
washometoadozenviceconsulsfromEuropeandtheAmericas.In1902,theUSCerrodePasco
Corporationacquiredthesiteforthemine,withlavishfundingfromanamalgamofgilded
financiersincludingJPMorganandWilliamRandolphHearst.

In1912,reportsemergedofwidespreadlaborabusesatthemine,perpetratedbywhata
Peruvianlaborobservercalled"theinsolentandirresponsiblepowerofacompanyenrichedbythe
bloodoftheworkmenwhichitcanshedunpunished."

CerrodePascowasnationalizedunderthenameCentromnPerfrom1974untilreprivatization
in1999underVolcan.Thecompanyhasbeenaccusedbyinternationalobserversofnotdoing

enoughtoprotectthehealthofcitizens,buthasarguedthatitisnotresponsibleforagrowinglitany
ofenvironmentalandurbanchallenges,insistingtheyaretheresultof400yearsofpoororno
regulatoryoversight.

Thissituationrevealstheabsenceofthestateinthemodeloftheminingenclavewherethe
companyhascontroloverthesocial,politicalandeconomiclife,GloriaRamos,acongresswoman
fromPasco,toldInterPressin2009.Foryearstherighttoworkhasbeengrantedinexchangefor
alifemarkedbypollutionandpoorlivingconditions.Wehavegrownupwithacultureofshort
termprofitsthathasignoredsustainabledevelopment."

StartingwiththeCerrodePascoCorporation(whichalsobuiltthesmelterinLaOroya,in1922),
thebulkofthemine'suntreatedtailingsslurryapuddingofrock,earthandheavymetalsthat'sthe
byproductofopenpitmininghasendedupfillinganumberofnaturallakesinandaroundthe
city.Thepracticehasofficiallystopped,buttheselakesremainunattendedanduntreated.Oneof
thelargestoftheselakes,Quiulacocha,whichislocatedrightbesideavillage,wasabandonedin
1992becauseithadreachedsaturation.Incertainlight,ittakesonapurplehue.

LakeQuiulacocha.Imagebytheauthor.

Thecityisalsodottedwithhillsizedmoundsofdrystacktailings,whichareliketheslurrybut
dry.Thesehavebeenfoundtocontain,amongotherthings,highlevelsofcyanide.Therearestacks
rightnexttothehospital,theprison,andevenresidentialcommunities.

ItisnosecretthatthepopulationofCerrodePascoisbeingpoisoned.CerrodePascolacksan
adequatewatermanagementsystem,andthetapwateroftenrunsturbid.In2009,anItalian

environmentalistandresearchertookawatersamplefrombesidethedrinkingwatersourceofa
wholeportionofthecity,andinitfoundelevatedlevelsofamongotherchemicals,lead,zincand
arsenic.

EveryoneIspoketomentionedleadpoisoning.A2009studyofsoilsamplesfoundleadlevelsthat
arethreetimeswhattheUSEnvironmentalProtectionAgencyconsiderssafeforchildren.Andina
stringofcommunitiesthatarelocatedontheshoresofthetailingslakes,areportbytheUS
CDCfoundthat91percentofchildrenunder12hadhighlevelsoflead,cesiumandthalliumin
theirblood.

Theresearchersconcludedthatthechildrenintheseareasareparticularlysusceptibletothe
detrimentaleffectsofleadpoisoningbecausetheyalsosufferfromhighratesofmalnutrition,
whichremainscommoninruralhighAndeancommunities.Thestudysuggeststhatthis
combinationoffactorscouldexplainwhy5.9percentofchildrenintheareasufferfromsomeform
ofdevelopmentaldelay.

DeniseCristbal,the29yearoldmayorofoneofthetownsbesidethetailingslakes,posingwithherson.Imagebytheauthor.

Therearehintsofcolorthough.In2012,agroupofartiststraveledtoCerrodePascototryand
bringsomecolortostreetsthathadbeengreyedoverthecourseofcenturiesbythetintofheavy
polymetalmining.

UntitledbyJade.Image:EduardoValdez

Thearthasbecomeanincongruousbutupliftingfeatureofthecityscape,turningthemiserable
cityintoalsoanopenairgalleryforaninternationalcollectionofbrightpublicartworks.(Full
disclosure:theprojectwasorganizedinpartbymybrother,thecuratorMaximHolland.)

UntitledbyDecertor.Image:EduardoValdez

Onesetofrecyclingbinsinthemainsquarewascheekilylabelledwiththenamesofseveral
poisonousmetalsandchemicalsthatarebyproductsoftheminingprocess.Arsenic,lead,
cyanide.Theydidnotsurvivethemunicipalityremovedthem.

Separatubasura,byINK.Image:MaximHolland

OneoftheartworksthatstillremainsistheMuseodelRelavetheMuseumofTailingsa
collectionofobjectsandanimalbonesthatartistIshmaelRandallWeekscollectedfromthetailings
slurryaroundoneofthelakes.

MuseodelRelave"byIshmaelRandallWeeks.Image:EduardoValdez

Anotherwelcomeburstoflightwasmyguide,theredoubtableartistandactivistElizabethLino.A
CerrodePasconativewhomovedtoLimainsearchofbetteropportunities,Elizabethisaproduct
ofasituationsheistryingtofight.Herfatherandgrandfatherbothworkedforthemine.Growing
up,shelivedinaminingcampontheedgeofthehole,whichwasaconstantpresencegrowingup.

Icouldseethepitfrommywindow.Iwasrightbesideit.Thatwasmyview,shesaid.Her
childhoodhomewasswallowedbytheminein2000.

NowshetravelsthecountrycallingherselfTheLastQueenofCerrodePascoandrallyingsupport
foracampaigntodeclarethecityaculturalheritagesite.Lino'sironicattemptseeminglyfueled
byequalpartsoptimismandpessimism,idealismandoutragehasdrawnwidespreadattentionin
Peru.TheQueensheplaysisn'tjustanact.She'sanentirecharacter,analterego:abenevolentand
proudfoilforLino,whoseseethingwhiteanger,onecantell,manifestsitselfasphysicalpain.

"Ononehand,itwearsmeout,andI'dliketostopdoingit,"sheexplained."Butontheotherhand,
Ihavetokeepdoingit."

Stillfromtheperformance"RomeriaALaExLagunaQuiulacocha"(PilgrimagetoExLakeQuiulacocha)byElizabethLino.Image:EduardoValdez

NOSILVERLINING
CerrodePascoisauniqueexampleofwhathappenswhenmetalsareextractedfromtheearthona
largescale,incloseproximitytohumanpopulations,withoutcomprehensiveandsustained
regulations,overanextendedperiodoftime.

TheglobalappetiteforwhatonevisitortoCerrodePasco,in1842,describedastheboundless
storesofwealthinthebowelsoftheearthunderaplacethat,evenbackthen,wasaninhospitable
region,wherethesurfaceofthesoilproducesnothing,isonlyexpanding.CerrodePascomaybe
thefirstlargecitytoonedaydisappearentirelyintoamine,butitwon'tbethelast.

Justlastmonth,Peru'spresidentOllantaHumalatoldtheAssociatedPressthathenecessarilyhadto
enactaJulylawthatsoftensenvironmentalregulationsforminingprojectsinordertoavoid
"killingthegoosethatlaysthegoldeneggs.

EarlierinSeptember,Queenslandpassedalawmakingitharderforpeopleandorganizationstobar
newminingprojectsbecause,accordingtoAndrewCripps,thecountry'sminingminister,
"alarmist"objectionstonewextractionventurescancostthestatebillionsintaxrevenues.The
strugglebetweenextractionandregulationhasnotbeenresolved.

Norarethedaysofpoisonedcommunitiescompletelybehindus.PoisoningofthekindIsawin
CerrodePascoisevensettobecomemorecommonintheUS.

AreportreleasedlastmonthbytheCivilSocietyInstitutesuggeststhatsandmining,whichis
growingasaresultofthedemandforsandforfracking,couldposehealthriskstonearby
communitiesby,amongotherthings,leakingacarcinogencalledacrylamideintothewatersupply.
SandminingoperationsaresettoopeninIllinois,Maine,Massachusetts,Michigan,Missouri,New
York,NorthCarolina,SouthCarolina,Pennsylvania,Tennessee,VermontandVirginia.

Volcantrucks.Imagebytheauthor

OnourreturntriptoLima,ElizabethpointedoutahillcalledToromochothat'sslatedtobecome
oneofthecountryslargestcoppermines.Sheexplainedthatthehillissonamedbecauseitis
shapedlikeabull.Onceitisstripped,itsformwillchangeanditsnamewillnolongermakethat
muchsense.

Chinalco,aChineseminingcompany,hasannouncedthatitwillinvest$4.8billionintheproject,
whichithopeswillyieldabout300,000tonsofcoppereachyear.InMarchofthisyear,the
Peruviangovernmentorderedthecompanytohaltoperationswhenitfoundthatuntreatedacidic
effluentwasbeingdumpedintotwonearbylakes.

Itwasarareshowingofthekindofregulatorybitethatwillbetheonlyhopeofpreventinganother
CerrodePascoorLaOroya.Butevenso,havingjustcomefromaplacethathadbeenshapedso
profoundly,andsodevastatingly,by400yearsofmining,itwasimpossiblenottolookatthishill
nottomentionthesoontobereopenedsmelteratLaOroyaandwonder,withanauseating
senseofdread,whatthisplaceandsomanyotherslikeitwilllooklikeadecadefromnow.Or,for
thatmatter,acentury.Orfour.

LearnmoreaboutCerrodePascointhismonth'sissueofVICEMagazine.
TOPICS:toxic,metal,mining,resources,minerals,lead,silver,peru,andes,poison,Earth

SHARE

COMMENT