Cerro de Pasco is a medium-size city in the high Peruvian sierra. And in the middle of the highest city in Peru, there is a giant pit… that is slowly swallowing the city.
In this mine – 1.2 miles wide and as deep as the Empire State Building – the rock-grinding machinery produces a low mechanical groan all day and all night. It is the sound of the city being eaten alive.
Cerro de Pasco is an environmental and urban catastrophe. The pit, which opened in 1956, is in the middle of the city—not beside it but in it. As it grows, thousands of families have had to move into unplanned urban developments, most of which lack basic sanitation. Now the city is running out of space.
The pollution in Cerro de Pasco is absolute. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study from 2007 reported that 60 percent of soil samples from houses in Cerro and the surrounding towns had more than 1,200 parts per million of lead—three times what the US Environmental Protection Agency considers safe for children. A soil sample from a heavily used footpath clocked in at 20,000 parts per million.
Much of the pollution comes from tailings—a heavy-metal-laden mixture of rock and earth produced by this kind of mining—which are formed into giant (and colorful) man-made hills around the city. In the 1920s, the mining corporation started dumping tailings into nearby lakes, which remain untreated and open to the air above and the aquifer below. The big mess!
The pit hasn’t grown in two years, but lately, Volcan, the company that currently runs it, has resumed buying houses around the periphery and painting them a fluorescent green. As more of the city—including what remains of the colonial quarter—changes color, everyone is wondering what’s going to happen next, and nobody seems particularly optimistic.
Yes this town is literally being eaten by this monster pit.
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