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Religious Leaders Challenge a Polluter | The Nation

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Religious Leaders Challenge a Polluter

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This report by the environmental group EarthJustice documents the damage Doe Run Peru has done to the environment and the residents of the town of La Oroya.

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Sara Shipley Hiles
Freelance journalist Sara Shipley Hiles specializes in stories that illuminate the relationship between people and the...

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This video report by the environmental group EarthJustice documents the damage Doe Run Peru has done to the environment and the residents of the town of La Oroya.

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It's a long way from the thin air of an impoverished mountain village outside Lima, Peru, to the tony atmosphere of the Hamptons. But a group of religious leaders from Peru recently traveled to New York to tell billionaire industrialist Ira L. Rennert that even if he can sleep at night, comfortably ensconced in his 110,000-square-foot estate in Sagaponack, God is watching.

The clerics want Rennert to improve health care and dramatically decrease emissions at a metals smelter in La Oroya, Peru, a town high in the Andes Mountains where thousands of children are suffering from lead poisoning. The smelter, known as Doe Run Peru, is a subsidiary of Rennert's $2.4 billion private holding company, the Renco Group.

Peruvian Roman Catholic Archbishop Pedro Barreto publicly called upon Rennert, a well-known philanthropist and supporter of Orthodox Jewish causes, to honor his religious faith and work harder to solve La Oroya's pollution problems.

"Our main purpose was to invite Ira Rennert to become a leader in social responsibility, under the assumption this is an ethical and moral issue," Barreto said, during the group's three-city visit to the United States this month.

Rennert declined to meet with Barreto and his colleagues, referring them to a local representative for the smelter in Lima. The religious delegation--which included an evangelical pastor, a Jewish leader and several Catholic nuns--instead visited with various religious agencies during the stop in New York City.

Calls to Rennert's office at Rockefeller Center asking for comment on the visit were referred to Victor Belaunde, a Doe Run Peru spokesman in Lima. Belaunde said that company officials met with the religious leaders June 8 in Lima and updated them on ongoing environmental improvements.

Company officials claim Doe Run Peru has already committed more than $107 million to clean up the smelter in the decade since Renco acquired the facility. The company pays $1 million annually to fund a health program run by the government's health ministry, Belaunde said. He added that the smelter is now in compliance with Peruvian standards for lead emissions.

Despite these investments, a recent study by St. Louis University scientists found that 97 percent of children in La Oroya are lead-poisoned, a condition that can cause mental and physical deficiencies. And a new report from LABOR, a Peruvian non-profit group, found that emissions of lead, arsenic and sulfuric acid have actually increased in the past two years, according to Friends of La Oroya, a group supporting the religious leaders' delegation.

The city of 33,000 people has been declared one of the world's ten most polluted places by the Blacksmith Institute. Visitors to La Oroya first notice that the surrounding valley looks like a bomb crater, stripped bare of vegetation by acid rain. Then they notice the massive Doe Run smelter complex, which bathes city in choking fumes and toxic dust that contains cadmium, arsenic and lead.

To combat the dust, Doe Run organizes cadres of women to wash public streets and encourage children to wash their hands. The company has delayed some mandatory environmental work that was originally required to be completed in 2006. Now the work is set to be done by 2009, but even then, according to the company's own study, many children in the town will still have blood-lead levels well above the acceptable standard.

"In the last few years the pollution in the air is worse, the soil has become infertile and the water has become polluted," said Sister Mila Diaz, a Dominican nun from La Oroya who was part of the religious delegation. "We don't want to fight with the company. We don't want the company to close their doors. What we want is for them to comply with the promise they made to clean the air."

The religious leaders' tour also stopped in St. Louis, where Doe Run Peru's former parent company, Doe Run Resources, has its headquarters. Company officials there declined to meet with the group, saying that Doe Run Peru is no longer its subsidiary; the Peruvian company now reports directly to Renco.

In addition, the group visited Herculaneum, Mo., where Doe Run operates the largest lead smelter of its kind in the United States. Longtime environmental activist Tom Kruzen took the group on a "toxic tour" to see the neighborhood where Doe Run was forced to buy out more than 140 homes surrounding the plant.

"You can pray all you want," Kruzen said of Rennert, "but if you're doing bad things to people, or if your endeavors do bad things to people, then you're not a moral person."

Rennert has grown rich using a formula of buying dirty companies, taking out steep loans and paying himself princely dividends, as documented in articles in Forbes and Business Week. Several of his companies have filed for bankruptcy, allowing Rennert to buy back assets for pennies on the dollar. Rennert's empire of mining and manufacturing firms also includes AM General LLC , the maker of HUMVEE military vehicles and the gas-guzzling Hummer, as well as a magnesium producer and a steel manufacturer.

The wealthy financier also has given widely to charitable and civic causes. Rennert and his wife, Ingeborg, have contributed to restoring the Western Wall Tunnels in Jerusalem, where the visitor's center bears the name "The Ingeborg and Ira Leon Rennert Hall of Light." New York University has an endowed professor of entrepreneurial finance in Rennert's name, and the Rennerts donated between $1 and $1.9 million to the World Trade Center Memorial .

At one time, Rennert lent his name to the Torah Ethics Project, an effort to remind Orthodox Jews of the importance of "living in accordance with the highest ethical standards." A statement on the project's website urges moral behavior in all business and personal matters that "adds luster to God's sacred name."

Rennert's supporters have included Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Holocaust survivor. At the prestigious Fifth Avenue Synagogue in New York, where Rennert is chairman, Rabbi Yaakov Kermaier defended Rennert's reputation.

"I'm not really familiar with any of his business operations," Kermaier said in an interview. "I know him as a person of extraordinary generosity and unimpeachable personal integrity."

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