Chained to health ministry, Peruvians protest mining pollution

LIMA (Reuters) - Parents of sick children who live near one of Peru’s oldest mining pits camped out in front of the health ministry in Lima for an eighth day on Thursday, demanding help to deal with the impact of decades of mining pollution.

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Dozens of residents of Simon Bolivar, a district in the city of Cerro de Pasco in the Peruvian Andes, traveled to Lima to press the government to declare a health emergency and build a regional hospital specializing in exposure to heavy metals.

“As a mother it’s so painful to see my daughter suffer,” said Sarita Custodio, crying and pointing to rashes on her daughter’s face and arms face as she sat chained to the entrance of the health ministry with other parents. “The doctor said it’s because of the lead.”

Lead, zinc, silver and other metals were mined at Cerro de Pasco for more than 400 years, leaving behind piles of tailings and traces of contaminants in the soil and water that many blame for ailments ranging from cancer to learning disabilities.

“Tonnes of it are outside all around and that’s what our children and residents have to live with,” said Simon Bolivar Mayor Zumel Trujillo, adding that there were more than 25 contaminated sites in his district alone.

More than 40 percent of the area’s children who were tested in a 2012 study had dangerously high levels of lead in their blood, according to a screening of some 2,700 children by regional health authorities.

Peruvian miner Volcan Compania Minera, one of Peru’s biggest lead and zinc producers, said the last mining operation at Cerro de Pasco closed in 2015 but that it still processes stockpiles.

Volcan said most of the region’s pollution dates from decades prior to the start of its operations and that its current activities meet Peru’s environmental standards.

Protesters urged President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski to make good on his campaign pledge to modernize Peru by ensuring basic services such as health care are available to all.

The health ministry said it would emit a decree declaring a health emergency in Cerro de Pasco soon and allocate an immediate budget of about $400,000 to help the sick.

Luis Palma, a construction worker from Cerro de Pasco, said all four of his children had lead levels with nine times recommended limits when they were tested a decade ago.

Palma said one of his sons died a few years ago after severe stomach problems that he blames on the pollution, and one daughter is so mentally disabled she cannot feed herself.

“This is killing us slowly,” said Palma.

Reporting By Mitra Taj and Reuters TV; Editing by Richard Pullin