BY FRANCES ROBLESMARCH 13, 2007 03:01 AM, UPDATED OCTOBER 02, 2008 06:12 PM
Johan Luciano is 13 years old and got kicked out of school in the first grade, because nothing he learned ever stayed in his head.
Environmental experts who know him say his developmental delay is the direct result of a battery recycling plant that operated in the Paraíso de Dios neighborhood of Haina for a decade, dumping battery acid and lead into the soil and into the neighborhood kids.
It’s an area where his barefoot playmates play stickball, and that one New York environmental group placed third in its list of 10 most polluted spots on the planet.
The illegal battery smelter so contaminated children here that some of them have been found with what are supposed to be fatal levels of lead in their blood. But they are alive — many of them with eye problems, seizures, severe learning deficiencies and blank stares like Johan’s.
”I can’t go in there,” Johan said about the lot where the factory once stood, a steady gaze to the floor. “There’s too much lead.”
Ten years after community and media pressure forced the closure of the plant, neighborhood children are still testing positive for lead poisoning. They’re still taking short cuts through the lot where piles of old batteries are buried and lead is washed down a hill into people’s homes every time it rains.
Environmentalists say the case is an extreme example of government inertia, and of how sometimes community pressure, outside experts and even available funding cannot compete against a lack of will.
”You’re dealing with some of the most incompetent people in the world,” Stephen Null, the New York anti-lead activist who first discovered the town’s problems more than 10 years ago, said of the various government functionaries who were supposed to help. “And a lot of them are corrupt.”
Johan lives in Paraíso de Dios — God’s Paradise — a low-income section of Haina, 12 miles west of Santo Domingo. The Blacksmith Institute, an organization that helps developing countries resolve pollution problems, last fall lumped it with Chernobyl and a place called Maiuu Suu, Kyrgyzstan, which is suffering from gamma radiation.
Blacksmith experts were back in Haina last week with the same goal they began with 10 years ago: cleaning up a place so contaminated some scientists say it would be better to move the 80,000 neighbors someplace else.
”The contamination is unbelievably high,” said Jack Caravanos, a Hunter College environmental science professor who collected soil samples for Blacksmith. “You could practically mine for lead there.”
Haina’s story began in the mid 1990s when Null, director of New York-based Friends of Lead-Free Children, was in Santo Domingo giving a lecture, trying to get the government there to stop using leaded gasoline. Null was approached by someone in the audience and told about a company called Metaloxa that was recycling batteries and contaminating kids.
Null visited and found a lot with 30-foot high piles of batteries. The smelter sat atop a hill surrounded by homes and operated around the clock. The entire neighborhood was filled with lead fumes.
First, Null had the employees tested for lead.
”Anything above 70, 80 or 90 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood is serious and results in swelling of the brain,” Null said. “These guys were at 300. I am sure they were going to die.”
According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control, a lead blood level above 10 is too high. Higher than that, the lead starts to change the brain’s chemistry, leading to neurological problems like a low IQ. Other problems include problems with vision, seizures and hyperactivity.
When Null and the scientists he brought in tested 147 of Haina’s kids in the spring of 1997, 91 percent of them had lead poisoning. The average blood level was 71, and one kid had 247.
”My son’s fingernails turned purple and he started having seizures,” said Elicia Fortuna, whose 12-year-old son Robinson was among the most contaminated. “He can’t keep still. He knows something one moment, and then he just forgets.”
Like other children, he is given vitamin supplements to keep his lead level in check.
”Of the 20 worst children, about half can’t go to school today because of permanent brain damage,” said Conrado Depratt, a chemistry professor at Universidad Autonoma de Santo Domingo. “Their IQs dropped to the floor. Those are irreversible damages. In the United States, people would be behind bars.”
Activist Sandra Castillo, whose son was hospitalized with seizures, got enough community support to force Metaloxa to move away in 1997. Two years later, the batteries were gathered and buried, and the owners put up a metal door to keep people out.
”We have never taken an irresponsible attitude,” said company vice president Juan Arturo Biaggi. “When we started in 1979, nobody lived there, and there were at least five other battery recyclers and a gasoline refinery. But they want to throw the entire town’s problems at us.”
Once the smelter moved and the batteries were buried, kids’ lead levels dropped dramatically, but they were still about triple what they should have been.
Then rains came and a cement wall around the buried batteries crumbled, leaving an open path for the debris to slide downhill. Then scavengers came and dug up the metals worth selling.
The Blacksmith Institute learned of the town, did follow-up tests and found soil levels of 463,970 parts per million. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency limits are 400.
‘They thought, `it’s closed, they moved out, problem solved,’ ” Caravanos said. “But what was left was contaminated land. I’ve never seen a community with such high soil levels. It was striking.”
Deputy Secretary of Environmental Affairs Zoila González said she does not know why the site has not been cleaned 10 years later, because the government environment ministry was not created until six years ago.
The government, she said, forced Metaloxa to move and then last year shut down its new locale, as well.
”Blacksmith’s list gives the impression nothing has been done, but it has been a worry for some time,” González said. “It may not be as fast as we want. We don’t have the money the United States or Europe may have, but we have been doing the work.”
Environmental prosecutor William Lara said he expects to file criminal and civil charges against the company soon but is waiting for environmental reports.
Biaggi doubts he can pay the estimated $2 to $4 million for cleanup and monitoring, but he has already lined up a company to excavate the site.
”I have been waiting for a report with the solution and what part we have to contribute,” Biaggi said. “And then I don’t hear from them.”
In the meantime, children like cross-eyed Rubi Romero, 2 years old and born some eight years after Metaloxa closed, has a lead level double what the CDC considers safe.
After a series of meetings last week, including with the Minister of Environment, Blacksmith president Richard Fuller said all sides have agreed to a remediation plan.
”The damage to these kids is permanent,” Fuller said, adding that funding has been secured. “Thousands of kids, thousands, all of them, their parents, and all the kids being conceived are poisoned.
“But it will get cleaned up.”