In response to Renco lobbying, activists mount their own campaign


A coalition of environmental advocates has launched a letter writing campaign directed at government officials who intervened in a dispute between Renco Group and its Doe Run Peru subsidiary and the government of Peru. The campaign came after the Sunlight Foundation reported that Renco had hired eight former government officials in less than three months to lobby on its behalf.

Two members of Congress, House Financial Services chairman Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., and Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J., wrote letters to executive branch officials summarizing Renco Group's position in the dispute with Lima. The letters request that the U.S. government consider measures to aid the company.

Payne had his letter, which was signed by other members of Congress, published in the Congressional Record, but without the names of his co-signers. The congressman’s chief of staff, LaVerne Alexander, has not supplied a copy of the letter despite repeated requests. Neither Alexander nor a spokesman for Bachus, who sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner in January, responded to a request to comment for this story.

Activists have targeted Renco Group in the complex dispute, which involves an inactive metal smelter in the town of La Oroya, Peru, which the Blacksmith Institute labeled one of the ten most polluted places on earth in 2006.

The Renco Group acquired the smelter, which had been in operation since 1922, in 1997 from the Peruvian government; as part of the privatization deal, both sides agreed to take steps to clean up La Oroya. In 2009, the company suspended operations at the site, blaming the slowdown in the world economy. In July 2010, the government of Peru revoked the company's operating license.

Doe Run Peru is currently in bankruptcy proceedings in Peru, where creditors will decide whether to liquidate or restructure it within weeks, according to Business News Americas.

In its filing for arbitration in December, Doe Run Peru claimed that if its assets were expropriated, the government of Peru would be violating the U.S.-Peru free trade agreement by breaking investment agreements. The claim also stated that Peru has not fulfilled its environmental cleanup responsibilities and has not granted the company adequate extensions in time to complete its own environmental projects. The Peruvian government recently fined Doe Run Peru about $2.5 million for failing to meet some of its environmental obligations. 

The company, in a press release from earlier this year, blamed the environmental degradation on the government-owned firm, which operated the smelter before 1997. Renco spokesman Andrew Shea has not yet responded to questions for this article.

To press its case in Washington, the Renco Group hired five different lobbying firms in a span of less than three months; eight former government officials represent the company, including a former chief of staff of Payne's.

Activists have sought to mount their own campaign to counter Renco's efforts. Alexa Smith, who works with the hunger campaign of the Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Ky., estimated that hundreds of letters have been sent, mostly to Secretaries Clinton and Geithner.

The coordinator of the environmental coalition, called Friends of La Oroya, is a St. Louis-based Presbyterian Rev. Elinor Stock, has been advocating for the health of people in La Oroya for almost a decade.

“Doe Run is not the victim here. The people [of La Oroya] are the most vulnerable,“ she said. “Doe Run is using clauses in the free trade treaties to justify the non-compliance and continued procrastination of their environmental responsibilities,” she added.

One Presbytery in New Jersey, Payne's home state, sent about 60 missives to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, according to Rev. Phyllis Zoon, a hunger advocate for the Monmouth, N.J. Presbytery. On Mar. 25, Zoon said she met with Payne’s chief of staff in Washington, D.C. to express her concerns about Doe Run Peru.

Rev. Stock's concern for La Oroya hit close to home. In the early 2000s, at about the time when her church began working with a network of Peruvian groups over contamination in La Oroya, Doe Run Peru was then a subsidiary of Renco-owned Doe Run Resources, which operated a lead-producing plant in Herculaneum, Mo. Lead levels in the air were so dangerously high that residents around the plant were relocated. The company agreed to pay $65 million last year to address the situation.