LIMA — Thousands of Peruvian workers blocked a key highway, risking clashes with police at a US-owned smelter at the center of a bitter year-long environmental dispute.
Defying a massive police operation to prevent the blockade, workers from the facility in the central town of La Oroya placed boulders and tree trunks across sections of Highway 20, a main east-to-west artery in the Andean nation.
A similar blockade at the complex — which refines lead, zinc, gold and copper — boiled over into ugly clashes with riot police last September that left one officer dead.
“The town is totally paralyzed, 3,500 workers are taking part in the action with the support of the entire population of La Oroya,” union leader Roberto Guzman told AFP by telephone.
The Peruvian government deployed 2,000 police officers and 500 troops to stand guard over the highway.
The protest marked the start of an indefinite strike to compel the government to push back a July 15 deadline imposed on the US firm Doe Run to comply with new environmental regulations.
President Alan Garcia issued an ultimatum to the company, ordering it to resume operations by July 24 or face being shut down for good.
“We can’t be placed with our backs to the wall by a company that hasn’t followed through with the investments it agreed to make… it’s blackmail to try to get more time from the government and parliament,” Garcia told a press conference as he accused the firm of backing the protests.
“We’ve been lenient, but there’s a limit to that. We can’t make any more exceptions.”
If Doe Run isn’t up and running by the stated date, Garcia warned “it will be closed down as promised.”
Energy Minister Pedro Sanchez said a plan was underway to relocate Doe Run workers to other mining jobs across Peru if the smelter is shuttered.
Privatized and sold to Doe Run in 1997, the mine is notorious for making La Oroya the most polluted town in Peru. Sulfur dioxide from its smelters have prompted serious health concerns for the local populace of some 60,000.
It was hoped Doe Run would be able to convert it into a clean-running facility, but the company has failed to meet several deadlines to do so as has run into financial trouble.
Doe Run is accused of resorting to “blackmail” by inciting its workers to side with the company’s demand for a deadline extension.
The firm owes more than 200 million dollars in debts and back taxes and is asking for a 20-year repayment moratorium, which the government says is unacceptable.
Doe Run, an affiliate of the US group Renco, is one of the world’s leading lead producers and is based in the central US state of Missouri.