One of the world’s most controversial mining companies is again in the news. Doe Run – a unit of the U.S.-based corporate giant Renco Group – failed last week in its latest attempt to restart operations of a huge lead smelter it owns in the Peruvian Andes. The plant, an environmental hazard, has been linked to the lead poisoning of 99 percent of the town’s children.
Investigative journalist Sarah Shipley Hiles and I wrote in 2005 one of the earliest exposés of Doe Run’s deceptive practices in the town of La Oroya, Peru. In 2007, the New York-based Blacksmith Institute, a nonprofit that studies toxic sites, declared La Oroya one of the world’s 10 most-polluted sites.
Relying on government inspection records, our investigation showed that while it was true that the company had reduced the amount of its toxic emissions, the concentration of heavy metals in those emissions was higher. As a result, the overall air quality worsened in La Oroya since Doe Run, owned by New York billionaire Ira Rennert, had taken over the plant in 1997.
Here are a few tips on investigating the mining industry I shared at the recent annual conference of the Colombian journalism group Consejo de Redacción in Bogotá:
- Investigate the business: This is key to understand the motivations behind a company’s actions. American publicly traded firms are required to file quarterly and yearly financial reports (called 10-Q and 10-K) with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which are searchable online. There, companies must also disclose the activities of their subsidiaries in other countries. Good search term within the financial reports: litigation.
- Learn the standards: Comparing local emissions and other practices with international environmental and health standards is a useful exercise. Emission levels that are illegal in one country can be perfectly legal in another. In La Oroya, we compared the lead levels in kids’ blood to the U.S. standards set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We found that children’s lead levels in La Oroaya were up to five times higher than the maximum level tolerated in the U.S. We also compared emissions and found that the La Oroya plant was spewing 31 times as much lead into the air as a similar plant the company runs in Missouri.
- Aggressive use of FOIA: Even in countries with weak transparency laws, it’s often possible to get documents that help connect the dots. In Peru we requested the smelter’s inspections carried out by the government. It helped that someone from inside the ministry told us the exact name of those reports so we could write a very specific request. Still, one of the best documents we obtained – a health study that showed the extent of lead poisoning in kids – did not come through a freedom of information requests but through traditional time-consuming and persistent cultivation of sources.
- Scientists or “hired guns”? Mining companies often pay for their own science. Be skeptical of scientists – regardless of their impressive credentials – who have been on the payroll of industry their entire careers. If in doubt, check their published papers in databases like this one; they usually are required to disclose their funding. When documenting pollution and disease, aim to find truly independent scientific studies and other documents such as medical records and death certificates. Another option: reach out to reputable research centers and universities, and commission the research/tests you need (for example, presence of heavy metals in soil or water). You would be surprised how willing researchers are to collaborate with enterprising journalists who are not after a quick hit.
- Take a global approach: In the mining industry, the damage is often local but the business is almost always global. Tap into the many networks of journalists who are willing to collaborate on stories such as the Global Investigative Journalism Network, the Forum for African Investigative Reporters and the ICIJ. If the mining firm you are interested in hides behind a series of companies incorporated in foreign countries and tax havens, check out the Investigative Dashboard for starters. If you want to track a specific commodity across borders, check out the PIERS database (it’s a paid service but the company has collaborated with journalists for free in the past) and the UN Comtrade database.
While La Oroya is a mind-blowing case, there are more than 150 mining conflicts throughout Latin America and the region receives about 25 percent of the global investment in mining exploration. Here’s a good example by our colleagues at the Chilean investigative center CIPER of how journalists can tackle these stories using an in-depth approach, public records and a multi-country team. And here’s a recent investigation by the ICIJ on the illicit mining of the rare-earth mineral coltan along the Colombia-Venezuela border and the trade’s ties to paramilitaries and drug traffickers.