Time to end the battles over Minamata disease
Fifty-three years have passed since the Minamata mercury poisonings were officially confirmed. The disease's victims are aging, and it is high time to put an end to the years of dispute surrounding Minamata disease, which is seen as the starting point for environmental pollution cases in this country.
The ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito and the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan reached an agreement Thursday to amend a bill to offer financial relief to people who have yet to be recognized as Minamata disease sufferers, paving the way for the bill to be passed during the current Diet session.
Both the ruling and opposition blocs made concessions over the range of victims entitled to the proposed compensation plan. Given the necessity of providing relief measures to unrecognized sufferers as early as possible, the agreement is a great step forward.
Under the major pillars of the proposed relief package, Chisso Corp., which caused the disease by releasing mercury-laced waste water from its factory, will offer lump-sum payments to people who were not recognized under state criteria as Minamata disease sufferers. In the case of Niigata Minamata disease, a similar disease that occurred in Niigata Prefecture, Showa Denko K.K., which has been held responsible, is expected to make payments. The central government, for its part, will provide medical expenses for sufferers.
We urge lawmakers to quickly agree on the amount of the lump-sum payments to ensure the money gets to the victims.
To be recognized by the state as Minamata disease sufferer, a person is required to be diagnosed as suffering from two or more symptoms, such as numbness in feet and arms, and impaired muscle coordination. However, sufferers will be entitled to the new relief measures as long as they have developed any one of the listed symptoms, including numbness in the arms and feet, systematic sensory impairment or sensory disorders around the mouth.
The relief measures are designed to expand the scope of victims as broadly as possible. More than 30,000 people are likely to be subject to the new agreement.
The bill also incorporates a plan to divide Chisso into two entities. The company, which currently is faring well thanks to its liquid crystal material production, will be split into one unit for business operations and another unit for compensating victims. Gains made on sales of the business section's listed stocks are expected to be used to pay compensation to sufferers.
Chisso seems to be trying to escape its image as a company responsible for pollution. However, the primary responsibility for such environmental degradation lies with the company that caused it. Whatever changes are made to Chisso's corporate structure, the firm must continue to bear the burden of steadily providing compensation to victims.
Opinion still divided
In 1995, the Cabinet of then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama endorsed a political settlement, formulating a relief package that covered more than 10,000 unrecognized patients.
However, the dispute was reignited following a 2004 Supreme Court ruling on a collective lawsuit filed by victims based in the Kansai region. The nation's top court acknowledged people with a wider range of symptoms as Minamata disease victims than the government's standards.
The Supreme Court ruling was followed by a series of applications by victims seeking recognition and the filing of lawsuits, making it necessary to offer a new relief program.
Because of strict criteria for recognizing Minamata disease sufferers, different lines have been drawn to define who is a victim, including people recognized by the central government, those who accepted the 1995 relief package without being officially recognized by the government, individuals who were recognized as sufferers by the top court, and people expected to be subject to the new legislation.
The complexity concerning sufferer recognition could be said to have delayed settlement of the issue.
Opinions among Minamata disease sufferers are divided over whether they should accept the proposed legislation. While some were positive, saying they would finally be able to get financial relief, others expressed discontent, saying lawmakers are not listening to them.
The response of victims will be the key to determining whether the proposed legislation will finally settle the long-standing dispute.
(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, July 3, 2009)