PERU: After Toxic Mine Spill, Locals Demand Both Jobs and Cleanup

Posted on 01 November 2010 by admin

Toxic waste in the Opamayo River. Crédito: Federación Nacional de Trabajadores, Mineros, Metalúrgicos y Siderúrgicos del Perú (FNTMMSP ).

By Milagros Salazar

LIMA, Nov 1, 2010 (IPS/TerraViva) – Four months after Peru’s worst toxic spill of mining waste, workers at the Caudalosa mine are demanding that it be reopened, while local communities want more cleanup of the rivers they depend on for water supplies.

Caudalosa, a Peruvian-owned mining company, produces copper, zinc and lead. Its main mine is Huachocolpa Uno, employing some 1,000 workers in Huancavelica, in Peru’s southeastern highlands.

The Jun. 25 collapse of a tailings dam caused the spill of 25,000 cubic metres of toxic waste. The dam burst because excess material had been accumulated, without permission or adequate overflow containment precautions, according to the environmental and mining supervisory authorities.

The company claimed it was a chance accident due to “static liquefaction,” causing abnormal water circulation and weakening of the reservoir walls.

Mine workers and their families demonstrated in Huancavelica Oct. 18 and 19, calling for the reopening of the mine, where operations have been suspended since the date of the spill by the energy and mining investment regulator, OSINERGMIN.

Héctor Sotacuro, organising secretary of the mineworkers’ union, told IPS they are considering marching on Lima this month, because they have received no pay at all since September. “If we can’t work, what are we supposed to live on?” he asked.

In addition to the closure of the mine, precautionary suspension of company operations was requested by the environmental prosecutor in Huancavelica, Frans Ponce. But on Oct. 25, the district High Court threw out the request, which means the mine could be allowed to reopen.

The court verdict, which was seen by IPS, ruled that there are no grounds on which to base the assertion that the toxic agents are “extremely dangerous for all forms of life in the environment, especially all life forms in the Escalera river and its tributaries.”

“We are still drinking this polluted water and our children could get ill,” Julián Marcas, who lives in Santa Rosa de Tincuy, told IPS. Unlike other communities in the area that draw water from springs, the only source of water in Santa Rosa is the Urubamba river, polluted by the spill.

The court ruling urges all national and local authorities concerned to avoid actions with goals “other than the public interest.”

A source at OSINGERMIN told IPS that it is up to the Ministry of Energy and Mining to determine whether the tailings reservoir that collapsed is now safe to operate.

But prosecutor Ponce decided to take the matter further, and on Oct. 25 filed a criminal lawsuit for environmental pollution against the general manager of the company, Alberto Pescetto, in a Huancavelica court.

The area affected by the spill is in Huachocolpa district, about an hour’s drive from the city of Huancavelica. Tailings containing arsenic, cadmium, iron, manganese, lead and zinc were washed into the Escalera river, and were found over 100 kilometres downstream from the mine in the same river, which changes name according to the towns and villages it passes (Huachocolpa, Opamayo, Urubamba and so on).

A report by the National Water Authority found that five out of 11 sites sampled Aug. 26-27 still had high concentrations of toxic pollutants.

One of the sampling sites was the Escalera river, where several metals were present at higher concentrations than permitted by environmental quality standards for livestock and irrigation uses. The concentration of manganese was eight times higher than the maximum permitted level, and cadmium concentration was more than six times higher than the acceptable level.

“Cadmium and lead need to be monitored with particular care, because they accumulate in animal tissues and crops which may be eaten by local people,” Jazmín Hurtado, the head of the microbiology department at the private Cayetano Heredia University in Lima, told IPS.

A few days after the spill, on Jun. 30 and Jul. 1, the authorities found levels of arsenic more than 50 times the legal limit in the Escalera river.

On Jun. 26, the day after the spill, tests in the Opamayo river found cadmium concentrations 245 and 265 times the limit, while lead levels were between 2,000 and over 3,000 times the limit.

Trout, a staple food of the nearby community of Palcas, died off en masse in the Opamayo river.

Prosecutor Ponce submitted certification of the damages and photographs from inspections in his request for precautionary suspension of Caudalosa’s mining operations. But the laboratory test results were not available until a month later. The lab tests are, however, included in his criminal suit against the company manager.

The company was ordered to carry out a 90-day remediation plan, comprising collection of polluting materials, replanting of pastures, trout farming, provision of water troughs and fences along river banks to prevent livestock from drinking the polluted river water, and health assistance for local people.

Caudalosa claims it has finished cleaning up the rivers, but the environmental authorities consider the work, which was due to be completed Sept. 2, inadequate, and have recommended that it continue.

The workers left unemployed during the suspension of mining operations were hired for manual cleanup work until August. “But cleaning up must continue, as the danger is not yet past,” Hurtado said. (END)

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