Minamata mercury victims, 50 years later, step up legal fight

June 9 (Bloomberg) — Hideki Sato was a toddler when the cats in his native Minamata city started “dancing” in the streets. He was 13 before Japan’s government said pollution was to blame and chemical company Chisso Corp. stopped dumping methyl mercury in the bay. By then, 1,573 people were dead or dying.
Supreme Court Ruling
The country’s Supreme Court, the highest judicial arbiter, ruled that the government failed to prevent the disease from spreading. Some people who don’t meet the official classification standard also should be recognized as victims, it said.
About 1,000 people filed suit in Kumamoto District Court in October, seeking 8.5 million yen ($75,600) each from the national and local governments and Chisso, according to Hirofumi Masuda, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.
Two other suits are being prepared, Masuda said, and more may be filed if the current case is successful. Sato, whose compensation application was rejected, said he may be one of them.
“The bureaucrats in Tokyo seem to think Minamata disease is a thing of the past,” said Hironori Yamaguchi, a plaintiff in the October suit. “But for us, it’s very real.”
Yamaguchi, a 52-year-old construction worker from Goshoura, an island town near Minamata Bay, said his fingers are deformed and increasingly numb because of mercury poisoning. He keeps the television on when he goes to bed at night to drown out a constant ringing in his ears, he said.
Hurling Against Walls
Domestic cats that began jumping and hurling themselves against walls alerted the people of Minamata in 1956. A 5-year- old girl was among the first human victims that year. A Kumamoto University team suggested pollution may be the culprit.
Tokyo-based Chisso had been making acetaldehyde, a chemical used in synthetic resins, since the 1930s. Methyl mercury, a byproduct, was released into the bay with wastewater.
The company stopped producing acetaldehyde in 1968, four months before the government confirmed that mercury was causing the illnesses. Similar poisoning was reported in Niigata city northwestern Japan in 1965
Chisso now makes liquid crystal compounds and fertilizer chemicals in Minamata. It paid 300 billion yen to compensate some victims and to clean up the environment, said Toshiya Horio, a spokesman.
The company also spends about 2.4 billion yen each year on medical care for some sufferers, Horio said. Chisso executives visit Minamata every year to express their remorse.
One-Off Settlement
In 1995, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama offered a one-off settlement to about 2,000 people who had sued for compensation. About 11,000 victims then qualified for 2.6 million yen each from Chisso. The national and local governments agreed to pay their medical expenses.
In addition, 2,453 people receive free medical care under a program that began in October, said Shigekazu Komoto, a spokesman at the Environment Ministry’s Special Environmental Disease Office. In return, they agreed not to sue.
The government doesn’t recognize them as Minamata disease victims, Komoto said. “But we give them free medical care anyway to help them put their minds at ease,” he said.
The panel that classifies Minamata victims has been dormant since 2004, when members’ terms expired, said Miwako Konno, an Environment Ministry spokeswoman. The government won’t broaden its definition of the disease, she said.
“The government doesn’t have a coherent policy,” said Ekino, the professor. “They refuse to acknowledge scientific data. The whole thing is chaos.”
The Kumamoto government declared Minamata Bay clean in 1997, removing a net that had prevented fish from leaving the area since 1974. Fish from the bay now are sold in western Japan, said Yoshito Tanaka, a deputy director at the prefecture.
Many sick people in Minamata are reluctant to complain because Chisso remains a major employer and their relatives work at its factory, said Toshio Oishi, 66, who also joined the October suit.
Oishi, who worked at Chisso for 18 years, said he has lost his sense of pain and taste. “I could get into boiling water and not feel a thing,” he said.
To contact the reporter for this story:
Tak Kumakura in Tokyo at tkumakura@bloomberg.net.

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