On Poisoning Children
If karma were to exist, it’s hard to imagine what kind of punishment there could be for poisoning 97 percent of the children in La Oroya, Peru with lead.
To me, it seems equally likely that karma exists as it does that Ira Rennert puts much thought into it while enjoying an ocean-side view from his 100,000 square foot complex in the Hamptons.
Just for reference, that is one of the largest residential buildings in the world.
But before we get to Rennert, let’s talk about something you’re more likely to have heard about: lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan.
In August 2014, the city of Flint began a saga to act on a 2012 plan to switch its water source over to Lake Huron. What ensues is a rundown of the pollutants that come with industrial societies. We begin with fecal coliform bacteria, followed by massive influx of chlorine to flush that out: enough to cause corrosion in the engines being built by General Motors. Then we have E. Coli, followed by warnings over excessive amounts of disinfectants and their byproducts. This includes a chlorine byproduct, TTHM, a cancer-causing compound. Fear not, the Governor decides this isn’t an immediate health emergency since the impacts of TTHM takes years to compound and form.
And then, lead.
On February 26, 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a report that the water of a Flint resident, Lee-Ann Walters, had 105 parts per billion (ppb) of lead. Hardly on the anti-industrial frontline, you can be assured that the EPA’s safe limit of 15 ppb is an exceptionally liberal application of the word “safe.”
Lawsuits issued, cases dismissed.
Scientists at Virginia Tech step in and continue testing on Walters’ water. The results worsen. The EPA issues a statement showing that the lead level from Walters’ tap had reached as high as 13,200 ppb. By the EPA’s own numbers, water with 5,000 ppb of lead is considered hazardous waste. Here, Walters and the other residents of Flint were paying for it.
It’s not worth recounting this ongoing story in full here. As it continues to unfold and deepen, there are plenty of outlets for that. But Flint is hardly alone in the matter. Even though Flint seemingly continues to get the attention to verify that this story is the exception and not the rule, that’s not so true either. It has been found that within the United States, over 3,000 locales are delivering lead-filled tap water to their residents with numbers as high as what was seen in Flint. Note the present tense.
There is a story there. And it is a vital one.
Lead poisoning is a chronic ailment of industrial civilization. Based on ice core samples taken from Greenland, the amount of lead in the atmosphere increased twenty-four-fold since 1800. Quadrupling again after 1940, when lead was being added to gasoline. The impacts on children range from devastating to endemic. That’s a genie that doesn’t get the chance to go back into its lead pipes.
What I’m concerned about here is the sub-plot: the general sense of “how does this happen” in contemporary America. Lead, as we are led to believe, is thought to be an old issue. Congress, after all, banned residential use of lead paint in 1971. Something you can be reminded of when a landlord or real estate agent hands you a worn and withered photocopied pamphlet about the dangers of lead paint in houses built before 1971. This hand off is a crucial part of an unofficial ritual most of us have developed: where we throw the most-likely unread pamphlet in the trash.
Or, more appropriately, in the recycling.
In paint alone, lead is not an old issue by any stretch of the imagination. There remain 45 countries where you can still buy lead paint from retail stores. For industrial applications no country has banned its use entirely. That includes the United States.
There’s a soothing effect when you see quick action after things like when children’s toys are recalled due to the use of lead paint. In 2007, a massive recall of Chinese produced toys that included 1.5 million Thomas & Friends trains and components alone.
This looks like containment and control. It is anything but.
So, who still uses lead? We do. And plenty of it.
Though lead was taken out of gasoline in the United States in 1986 (not counting propeller airplanes), it remains in lead-acid batteries. For the most part, those are used for automobiles. But there is an increasing market here: solar power.
Between 2000 and 2016, the United States alone saw an increase from a thousand solar installations nationwide to a million. All of those installations, generating 27.2 gigawatts of electricity, account for one percent of energy consumed within the US. That is a small percentage, but exponential growth. Not even touching on the amorphous silicon, cadmium telluride, and copper indium diselenide needed to produce the thin film, photovoltaic technologies needed in the panels; to create, store, and use energy from panels requires the use of batteries.
Batteries made, in turn, with lead.
A significant portion of that lead is recycled from other batteries. If you were to believe the myths of marketers, lead smelters are leading us into a new green era: I, for one, don’t.
“At East Penn, sustainability is simply who we are.”
This line, not shockingly, comes from a sustainability report from East Penn, a manufacturing company based outside of Reading, Pennsylvania. Their claim of “sustainability since day one” is no more believable.
They’re excitedly claiming that they recycle 30,000 batteries per day. Recycling the plastic, lead, and acid from each. That amounts to 200 million pounds of lead per year. What do they have to show for it? An extensive trail of EPA violations reports, for starters. One corrective measure included de-watering and relocating an iron ore pit, which had leached toxic solvents into the groundwater. The lead content: 5,300 parts per million.
Remember that the EPA declares 5,000 parts per billion to be hazardous waste.
While the peak of Flint’s lead crisis found 3.21 percent of children had a blood-lead level of 5 micrograms or more, a 2014 study in Reading, PA found 16.14 percent of children matched or exceeded that threshold. I’m not quite sure how that factors into East Penn’s sustainability pledge. But rest assured, the sulfur fumes created during the lead smelting process are captured to create liquid fertilizer solutions, such as Ammonium Thiosulfate. Since it is a nitrogen fixing addition to fertilizers, it apparently gets a pass on such non-essential tests as “mobility in soil” or degradability.
Now let’s get back to Ira Rennert.
For being a billionaire with a house so obnoxiously large that it could upset other residents of the Hamptons, Rennert has been ironically described as “reclusive.” He is the archetype of the salvage capitalist. Having started in capital analysis on Wall Street, he moved into the glorious realm of junk bonds.
When his first venture collapsed under the weight of scandal, he just opted to start his own company, Renco. There he quickly got back in the game of buying the shares of struggling companies and selling junk bonds to scavenge every bit of investment from the corpse. In the process, he made a bit of money.
That 29 bedroom, 39 bathroom estate? He paid for it by bleeding funds from a magnesium-mining corporation, MagCorp, which he acquired in 1989. Taking advantage of a short-lived magnesium bubble from 1991–1995, Rennert doubled the companies’ debt load while brushing off regulators.
In 2001, MagCorp filed for bankruptcy. Not surprisingly, this is the same year that the EPA sued the company for one billion dollars over toxic pollution and illegal extraction near the Great Salt Lake. That case lasted until 2007, when a judge ruled in favor of MagCorp, not disputing that they had dumped PCBs and HCBs (which had been banned for three decades at that point), but that the EPA should have had its regulations in place 20 years prior when they began these practices.
Can’t make this stuff up.
Inspired by the metal-fueled riches, Renco purchased Doe Run, a global producer of lead, copper, and zinc concentrates, in 1994. Unlike East Penn, Doe Run is equally rooted in mining programs and the recycling business. Like East Penn, they also make ludicrous claims, such as “mining sustainably.” If that makes you queasy, take solace in knowing that they regularly gather insights from the bastion of ecological radicalism: their shareholders.
They’re also a much larger operation; producing 250,000 tons of lead concentrate, “recovering” 160,000 tons of lead and lead alloys, and manufacturing 30,000 tons of lead products annually.
When Renco purchased Doe Run, it included a lead smelting plant in Herculaneum, Missouri that had been in operation since 1892. That plant had a long history of poisoning locals, but things came to a head in August 2001 when Doe Run’s hauling trucks started leaving a coat of black dust over the town. A state environmental official tested the ash and the results showed that they were 30 percent pure lead. The toxicity was equal to what you get inside a lead mine: 300,000 parts per million. On top of that, the dust was also heavy in arsenic and cadmium.
State officials released a report in February 2002 showing that 56 percent of children living within a quarter mile of the smelter had elevated blood-lead levels. Instead of shutting down the smelter, Doe Run shut down the town: rules were given on living with lead, parents were told not to let children play outside. Eventually Doe Run caved, buying up the houses within three-eighths of a mile of the smelter and bulldozing them. Sure enough, the company boasts of its reclamation process of that disastrous land, turning it into a port no less.
The reason Doe Run could take what became a ten million dollar hit in Herculaneum is that it had a back up plan in action: pillaging in Peru.
Rural Missouri is well situated in the “Iron Belt” and there’s no mystery to it. The poverty is largely endemic. Viburnum, Missouri, where Doe Run is headquartered, is a speck of a town. Its limits are noted by passing a mining equipment supplier on one side of the road and a small baseball diamond on the other, sponsored, of course, by Doe Run. Miners and their families have a history of being physically violent with what they consider “outsider” environmental activists.
Children under six are recommended to get their blood tested annually, a free service for the number one lead producing state in the US. The town has a single medical clinic. When I asked one of the doctors about the free testing for children, she seemed unaware. The only lead tests they did were on miners after they were showing symptoms of sickness.
While the effects of being at the center of over one hundred years of lead mining and smelting are apparent, they’re still on the First World map.
La Oroya, Peru is not.
The core of La Oroya’s downfall is a formerly state-owned smelter. Its operations began in 1922 and after the Peruvian government passed legislation for, what it considered, costly renovations; they sold to Ira the Salvager’s Renco in 1997. The city, with its population of 33,000, has been ranked one of the top ten most polluted places, on the short list with the likes of Chernobyl.
If you can picture the surface of Mars, you’re pretty close to what La Oroya looks like. Nearly a hundred years of regulation-free smelter operation produced enough acid rain to kill all vegetation on the hillsides. What remains of the copper-colored Mantaro River has been redubbed as “dead river,” for reasons that I’m sure you can imagine.
Alongside lead, the smelter here refines arsenic, cadmium, copper, silver, and gold. Renco’s Doe Run Peru did meet the lowest level of contractual obligations, putting over $100 million into a specific attempt to reduce the pollution: building a disposal pit for arsenic trioxide. However, in the first two years of Doe Run’s management, the levels of lead, sulfuric acid, and arsenic all rose.
This is an area where the air is found, in 2007, to have unheard of levels of pollution, vastly beyond what is considered “safe;” 85 times for arsenic, 41 times for cadmium, and 13 times for lead. The town’s water supply has 50 percent more lead than what the World Health Organization deems permissible. The “dead river” is choked with copper, iron, lead, manganese, and zinc.
For children here, lead poisoning begins in the womb and stays with them for life.
Facing a legal battle over the failure to improve the level of pollution stemming from the plant, Renco opted to just shut the smelter down in 2009. Lawsuits continue to go back and forth over Doe Run’s poisoning of the children and city of La Oroya, but buffered by international borders, they continue to drag out. If dodging a lawsuit for their MagCorp disaster — which happened within the US — is any indicator, it’s unlikely that Ira will lose no more than some sleep on the matter.
For all living beings, shutting down the smelter alone is a start, but it isn’t the end. Lead poisoning isn’t a curable affair for children and those afflicted in the womb carry this with them until they finally succumb to it.
The point is this, this is an exceptionally brief look, primarily, at one heavy metal: lead.
That is just one component, one piece of this vast and seemingly unending dissection of the world into a resource pit of usable materials for civilization to prey upon. Just one piece of the technological web we have been woven into. More so, it is a piece that ecological and environmental histories and accounts very rarely seem to even consider as a contemporary issue. In shelves of books on ecological devastation, lead hardly even makes it into the indexes.
Every component, every piece within every machine, all the paints, the coatings, the connectors, the solder, and the adhesives: all of it carries these legacies. Each has a uniquely vile background, present, and future.
This is the world that technology has created: the world that domesticators dream of and programmers plan for. We can feign ignorance and gloat in the hopeful prospects of technocrats and liberal fantasies where the future is brighter through chemistry. That enlightenment ushers forth technological improvements and a saner sense of ecological sustainability.
The reality is the opposite.
An over-stimulated and hyper-connected virtual reality only offers more corners to hide the real world consequences of our stuff. Our junk. Radical, conservative, political, or anti-political: it doesn’t matter; we’re all using batteries. The delusions of silver bullets like a solar energy transition rely on the fact that issues like lead-based production are toxic particles buried in the dustbin of history.
They absolutely are not.
As the discussion surrounding lead poisoning in Flint continues to cycle around the dilapidated and withering infrastructure, the narratives of civilization succeed by turning this into a problem that seemingly can be managed. It can’t. And as the lead pipes and lead paints are removed, they’re simply being displaced, relocated. They aren’t gone.
Not only are we stuck with them, all life on this planet is.
Lead impacts all living beings. It stays in the soil: it destroys water. One of the leading causes of death for Bald Eagles remains lead-poisoning caused by residuals of lead in ammunition throughout carrion or consuming lead fishing lures swallowed by the fish they hunt.
It is easy to see scum like Rennert, the predatory salvage-capitalism of Renco, or the solar roof delusions of Tesla’s Elon Musk as isolated or historical creations. In every sense, they are, but wretched as all of them are, they’re just managers, profiteers, and programmers: ultimately replaceable and replicable.
What is vital is to remove the comfort of distance and a historicized pollution. Lead is a heavy drop in the bucket of the toxic upkeep for an imposed global order. This trajectory cannot be corrected or sustained, only destroyed. This is a legacy that we are stuck with, but as a look at the gleeful 1930s era advertisements for Ethyl — the lead additive for gasoline — may indicate, the next solution could always be worse.
Then again, only if we let it.
Originally published in Black and Green Review no 5. 2016.
 Clive Ponting, Green History of the World. New York: Penguin, 1993. Pg 383.
 Richard Heinberg, The Party’s Over. British Columbia; New Society, 2003. Pgs 142–144.