Court favors mercury victims

November 27, 1993|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- Almost 37 years after the first cases of mercury poisoning were reported in a small fishing village in southern Japan, a Kyoto district court delivered an important belated victory yesterday to a few dozen survivors of one of the world's most devastating industrial disasters.

Japanese authorities and the Chisso Corp. were ordered to pay 38 victims $35,000 to $75,000 each, a total of $1.8 million.

A Chisso predecessor company had dumped tons of mercury into a bay that had provided sustenance to the town of Minamata for generations. The dumping took place between the early 1930s and late 1960s.

Courts had wavered about holding the government responsible, and the government, concerned about having to assume the cost of numerous transgressions by private industry, fought liability. It has, though, indirectly funded compensation payments that have been assessed on Chisso.

Yesterday the court ruled the government responsible for failing to adequately regulate and supervise the disposal of hazardous waste, a contention the national government has vigorously fought.

The case, filed in 1985, involved former residents of Minamata now living in the Kyoto area. But the decision could pave the way for victims in related trials, victorious lawyer Fumio Natsume told a news conference.

At least 2,000 other people have filed suits throughout Japan, and a report by a major political party concludes that twice that number were irreparably harmed and are still living.

But many thousands more of the victims are believed to have died years ago, many without any compensation.

The poisoning occurred when Japan was in the midst of a frantic rush to industrialize and there was little knowledge of, or concern for, what later became routine environmental safeguards.

In 1956, the first cases of mercury poisoning were reported. By the end of the decade, there were 29 reported deaths. But it took many more years before the linkage was firmly understood. Victims, often confused and ashamed of the effects of mercury poisoning, hid their symptoms -- a practice that continues even now, according to a survey released this month.

Children were born with severe birth defects, and a number who appeared to have escaped harm found they could not bear children of their own -- a horrifying loss in a society structured around the family and offspring.

Adults complained of numbness in their hands and feet, and some subsequently lost control of all bodily functions, suffering spastic twitches and rapidly advancing senility before dying horrid deaths.

In an important aspect of yesterday's ruling, the 38 people awarded damages were not among a highly restricted group officially certified by the government as victims of Minamata disease.

The government is weighing an appeal. But public sentiment is largely in favor of victims, and Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, a former governor of the area that includes Minamata, has expressed strong sympathy on behalf of those who were injured.

This has led some people to believe that after years of rejecting responsibility for the disaster, the national government may weigh in on their side.

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