Peru's plans to cut air quality rules would smooth sale of top polluter (David Hill, Andes to Amazon, The Guardian)
It’s a fairly common tactic in Peru to issue a significant or potentially controversial decision or resolution when you hope no one is paying attention. 24, 26 or 31 December, for example. The Environment Ministry (MINAM) recently adopted that ploy by releasing, just before the Easter week holiday, proposals to dramatically roll back certain air quality standards across the country.
The draft National Environmental Quality Standards for Air propose maintaining the maximum legal limits for nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulphide, lead and benzene, but doubling the limit for some particulate matter. Most startling, they propose increasing the limit of sulfur dioxide by more than 12 times.
MINAM effectively claims that Peru is the global leader in sulfur dioxide limits because it is the “only country in the world” which meets World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations. That limit is 20 micrograms per cubic metre over a 24 hour averaging period, compared with 210 in Australia, 250 in Chile and Colombia, 288 in Mexico, 300 in Canada and 365 in Brazil, according to the ministry. Elsewhere in the world - although these are not acknowledged by MINAM - the limit is 150 in China, 125 in the EU, 131 in South Korea and 80 in India.
The current proposal is to raise Peru’s limit to 250. One justification is that “no clearly defined link exists” between sulfur dioxide and negative impacts on human health, MINAM claims, according to its interpretation of research by the WHO, the US’s Environmental Protection Agency and Health Canada, among others.
Further justifications are that no other country in the world has a limit as stringent as 20 and adopting it was a mistake out of touch with “national reality.” It isn’t being complied with, the ministry argues, and therefore undermines the public’s faith in government and the law.
“[The 20 limit] was adopted in a very short timeframe without a solid technical and economic argument and without considering sustainable development policy that involves taking acceptable risks to public health while at the same time introducing effective strategies to reduce environmental contamination,” MINAM states.
The ministry’s proposals have met with serious concern and criticism from Peru’s Congressional Commission on the Environment, Ecology and Andean, Amazonian and Afroperuvian Peoples, NGOs, and many others. Lima-based APRODEH and the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA) say that MINAM is ignoring scientific evidence of the “serious health harms” caused by both sulfur dioxide and particulate matter. These include lung problems and premature death - with children, the elderly and people with asthma being particularly vulnerable.
“There is overwhelming scientific evidence to conclude that sulfur dioxide pollution poses a serious health risk, particularly when the contamination reaches high levels over short periods of time, something the proposal does not take into account,” says AIDA’s co-director Anna Cederstav in a joint statement with APRODEH.
Both organisations argue that MINAM’s proposals violate the American Convention on Human Rights and other international treaties binding on Peru. In addition, the public consultation was “flawed”, they state, with too little time for discussion and the scientific basis for the proposals not made public.
That opinion is shared by the Congressional Commission on the Environment, which has written to Environment minister Elsa Galarza requesting a further 30 days for the public consultation process. The Commission is presided by Maria Elena Foronda, who has taken the lead in drawing public attention to the issue.
“In the Commission’s view any law that would reduce environmental quality standards requires a responsible and timely technical evaluation, as much by members of congress as civil society,” Foronda says. “It’s appropriate to point out that MINAM is trying to establish parameters that are weaker than those recommended by the WHO.”