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The Giant Toxic Hole Eating Peru's Highest City

The 'highest city in the world' is being swallowed by an appetite for metal.

by Arthur Holland Michel
Oct 10 2014, 3:40pm

I was hungry when we stopped in La Oroya, a ribbon of a town in a deep valley in the high Peruvian Sierra. The car trip had been long and winding, and we still had a ways to go. At these altitudes, there isn't a lot of really good stuff to eat, except for trout. I wanted to eat one. As we walked into a restaurant, we passed a row of shiny new Toyota pick-ups, the de-facto mode of transportation for the engineers who maintain the gigantic mining operations in the area. My trout was delicious. It had golden, crispy skin and moist pink flesh and tasted extremely fresh. It was also probably laced with toxic chemicals.

La Oroya is widely considered to be one of the most polluted places on the face of our fair earth. The Blacksmith Institute, a New York-based environmental group, listed it in their top ten. A 2005 study found that 97 percent of children under six here have toxic levels of lead in their blood. The valley was, at one time, so polluted that the hills on either side are now a ghostly, bleached white.

The cause of this pollution is a 92-year-old smelter and metallurgic complex now owned by Doe Run Peru, a subsidiary of US mining company Doe Run. Amid a $600 million debt and slumping metals prices, the place is said to be up for sale. When it's operating, the smelter—the largest polymetallic smelter in the Americas—can process 122,000 tons of lead each year, and 43,000 tons of zinc.

This metal gets packed into trains, which pass along the highest railway in the Americas, and will head down to the port of Callao, to be shipped out all over the world and put into things like your iPhone. Doe Run has invested in emission control systems, water treatment plants and health programs, community development and job-training programs. But La Oroya is saddled with decades of heavy metal contamination, some of which ultimately ends up in the trout and, much more crucially, the humans who live here.

Somehow, I could have gone for another trout. But we were heading even deeper into mine country, to a city that is arguably even more toxic and even more incomprehensible.

Cerro de Pasco is freezing cold and infinitely grey. At nearly 14,000 feet above sea level, it's the highest city in Peru, and based on the size of its population—about 70,000—it claims to be the highest city in the world. You can feel it in your head. It's basically impossible not to get some degree of altitude sickness here. Everything tastes of metal. Nobody seems happy. The local delicacy is a kind of sweet porridge made out of rotten potatoes. It is a kind of hell.

And in its center is a sight just as dizzying: Raul Rojas, an open-pit mine 1.2 miles wide and a quarter of a mile deep, that is slowly overtaking a city of thousands.

A map of Cerro de Pasco. Image: Google.

As you might imagine, there are considerable logistical and environmental challenges when a mine sits at the center of a city, which in this case is a place with a sewer and plumbing, schools, hospitals, and homes.

A 2006 report by Peru's Civil Defense Institute said that 85 percent of the homes along the edge of the pit are basically uninhabitable. In 2007, a study funded by the US Center for Disease Control found that 91 percent of children and 82 percent of women of reproductive age had levels of at least one heavy metal above the recommended range—the effects of which can be kidney failure, liver damage, stunted growth and intellectual disabilities.

The city looks as if it's being stretched around its edges. Mining began here hundreds of years ago around the area's massive silver deposits, but these and many other metals are harder and harder to find. Half of the city's colonial quarter has already been disappeared, and in the past few months the mine's current owners, a Peruvian corporation called Volcan, have been buying up what remains, determined to get at the valuable zinc, copper and lead sitting beneath the city center, and insisting that it isn't responsible for the extensive damage to the environment.

An expansion of the pit seems imminent. In the mid-2000s, the company proposed to move most of the 67,000 residents to new housing developments in a place called Villa de Pasco, about seven kilometers away. But in 2009, the $322 million project was put on hold, partly over a dispute about how to pay for it. (A similar plan, hatched four decades ago, also failed.)

Now, the residents of Cerro de Pasco—some 4,000 of whom work directly for the mine, and all of whom depend upon it in some way—are stuck in a thoroughly modern predicament: prevent Volcan from continuing to swallow the land but risk losing the city's monolithic economic engine; or allow the mine to keep growing, powering the local workforce but tarnishing the environment and stretching the city to its limits. While few people here can imagine life without the mine, several residents I spoke to said their best bet at this point would simply be to leave.

The suburb of Carhuamaca sits at the foot of a giant heap of poisonous rock tailings. Image: Eduardo Valdez

Raul Rojas, which was named after a miner killed during a strike, was opened in the 1950s but mining has existed in this location since 1630. By the middle of the 1800s, the city—then sometimes referred to as "The Opulent City"—was responsible for one-third of Peru's silver, and was home to a dozen vice-consuls from Europe and the Americas. In 1902, the US Cerro de Pasco Corporation acquired the site for the mine, with lavish funding from an amalgam of gilded financiers including JP Morgan and William Randolph Hearst.

In 1912, reports emerged of widespread labor abuses at the mine, perpetrated by what a Peruvian labor observer called "the insolent and irresponsible power of a company enriched by the blood of the workmen which it can shed unpunished."

Cerro de Pasco was nationalized under the name Centromín-Perú from 1974 until re-privatization in 1999 under Volcan. The company has been accused by international observers of not doing enough to protect the health of citizens, but has argued that it is not responsible for a growing litany of environmental and urban challenges, insisting they are the result of 400 years of poor or no regulatory oversight.

"This situation reveals the absence of the state in the model of the mining enclave where the company has control over the social, political and economic life," Gloria Ramos, a congresswoman from Pasco, told Inter-Press in 2009. "For years the right to work has been granted in exchange for a life marked by pollution and poor living conditions. We have grown up with a culture of short-term profits that has ignored sustainable development."

Starting with the Cerro de Pasco Corporation (which also built the smelter in La Oroya, in 1922), the bulk of the mine's untreated tailings slurry—a pudding of rock, earth and heavy metals that's the by-product of open-pit mining—has ended up filling a number of natural lakes in and around the city. The practice has officially stopped, but these lakes remain unattended and untreated. One of the largest of these lakes, Quiulacocha, which is located right beside a village, was abandoned in 1992 because it had reached saturation. In certain light, it takes on a purple hue.

Lake Quiulacocha. Image by the author.

The city is also dotted with hill-sized mounds of dry-stack tailings, which are like the slurry but dry. These have been found to contain, among other things, high levels of cyanide. There are stacks right next to the hospital, the prison, and even residential communities.

It is no secret that the population of Cerro de Pasco is being poisoned. Cerro de Pasco lacks an adequate water management system, and the tap water often runs turbid. In 2009, an Italian environmentalist and researcher took a water sample from beside the drinking water source of a whole portion of the city, and in it found elevated levels of among other chemicals, lead, zinc and arsenic.

Everyone I spoke to mentioned lead poisoning. A 2009 study of soil samples found lead levels that are three times what the US Environmental Protection Agency considers safe for children. And in a string of communities that are located on the shores of the tailings lakes, a report by the US CDC found that 91 percent of children under 12 had high levels of lead, cesium and thallium in their blood.

The researchers concluded that the children in these areas are particularly susceptible to the detrimental effects of lead poisoning because they also suffer from high rates of malnutrition, which remains common in rural high Andean communities. The study suggests that this combination of factors could explain why 5.9 percent of children in the area suffer from some form of developmental delay.

Denise Cristóbal, the 29 year old mayor of one of the towns beside the tailings lakes, posing with her son. Image by the author.

There are hints of color though. In 2012, a group of artists traveled to Cerro de Pasco to try and bring some color to streets that had been greyed over the course of centuries by the tint of heavy poly-metal mining.

"Untitled" by Jade. Image: Eduardo Valdez

The art has become an incongruous but uplifting feature of the city-scape, turning the miserable city into also an open-air gallery for an international collection of bright public artworks. (Full disclosure: the project was organized in part by my brother, the curator Maxim Holland.)

"Untitled" by Decertor. Image: Eduardo Valdez

One set of recycling bins in the main square was cheekily labelled with the names of several poisonous metals and chemicals that are by-products of the mining process. Arsenic, lead, cyanide. They did not survive—the municipality removed them.

"Separa tu basura," by INK. Image: Maxim Holland

One of the artworks that still remains is the Museo del Relave—the Museum of Tailings—a collection of objects and animal bones that artist Ishmael Randall Weeks collected from the tailings slurry around one of the lakes.

"Museo del Relave" by Ishmael Randall Weeks. Image: Eduardo Valdez

Another welcome burst of light was my guide, the redoubtable artist and activist Elizabeth Lino. A Cerro de Pasco native who moved to Lima in search of better opportunities, Elizabeth is a product of a situation she is trying to fight. Her father and grandfather both worked for the mine. Growing up, she lived in a mining camp on the edge of the hole, which was a constant presence growing up.

"I could see the pit from my window. I was right beside it. That was my view," she said. Her childhood home was swallowed by the mine in 2000.

Now she travels the country calling herself The Last Queen of Cerro de Pasco and rallying support for a campaign to declare the city a cultural heritage site. Lino's ironic attempt—seemingly fueled by equal parts optimism and pessimism, idealism and outrage—has drawn widespread attention in Peru. The Queen she plays isn't just an act. She's an entire character, an alter-ego: a benevolent and proud foil for Lino, whose seething white anger, one can tell, manifests itself as physical pain.

"On one hand, it wears me out, and I'd like to stop doing it," she explained. "But on the other hand, I have to keep doing it."

Still from the performance "Romeria A La Ex-Laguna Quiulacocha" (Pilgrimage to Ex-Lake Quiulacocha) by Elizabeth Lino. Image: Eduardo Valdez

In search of silver linings

Cerro de Pasco is a unique example of what happens when metals are extracted from the earth on a large scale, in close proximity to human populations, without comprehensive and sustained regulations, over an extended period of time.

The global appetite for what one visitor to Cerro de Pasco, in 1842, described as "the boundless stores of wealth in the bowels of the earth" under a place that, even back then, was an "inhospitable region, where the surface of the soil produces nothing," is only expanding. Cerro de Pasco may be the first large city to one day disappear entirely into a mine, but it won't be the last.

Just last month, Peru's president Ollanta Humala told the Associated Press that he necessarily had to enact a July law that softens environmental regulations for mining projects in order to avoid "killing the goose that lays the golden eggs."

Earlier in September, Queensland passed a law making it harder for people and organizations to bar new mining projects because, according to Andrew Cripps, the country's mining minister, "alarmist" objections to new extraction ventures can cost the state billions in tax revenues. The struggle between extraction and regulation has not been resolved.

Nor are the days of poisoned communities completely behind us. Poisoning of the kind I saw in Cerro de Pasco is even set to become more common in the US.

A report released last month by the Civil Society Institute suggests that sand mining, which is growing as a result of the demand for sand for fracking, could pose health risks to nearby communities by, among other things, leaking a carcinogen called acrylamide into the water supply. Sand mining operations are set to open in Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia.

Volcan trucks. Image by the author

On our return trip to Lima, Elizabeth pointed out a hill called Toromocho that's slated to become one of the country's largest copper mines. She explained that the hill is so named because it is shaped like a bull. Once it is stripped, its form will change and its name will no longer make that much sense.

Chinalco, a Chinese mining company, has announced that it will invest $4.8 billion in the project, which it hopes will yield about 300,000 tons of copper each year. In March of this year, the Peruvian government ordered the company to halt operations when it found that untreated acidic effluent was being dumped into two nearby lakes.

It was a rare showing of the kind of regulatory bite that will be the only hope of preventing another Cerro de Pasco or La Oroya. But even so, having just come from a place that had been shaped so profoundly, and so devastatingly, by 400 years of mining, it was impossible not to look at this hill—not to mention the soon-to-be re-opened smelter at La Oroya—and wonder, with a nauseating sense of dread, what this place and so many others like it will look like a decade from now. Or, for that matter, a century. Or four.

Learn more about Cerro de Pasco in this month's issue of VICE Magazine.