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Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013

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In the works: Eiji Kawano (center), planning division chief of Minamata, prepares Dec. 5 for an upcoming international conference to conclude a mercury regulation treaty. KYODO

Minamata-named treaty, like disease, contentious


MINAMATA, Kumamoto Pref. — People from Minamata in Kumamoto Prefecture have sometimes been hesitant to reveal where they come from because of prejudice toward sufferers of the pollution-triggered disease that hit the area more than half a century ago, and bears the small coastal city's name.

The prejudice stems from the unusual symptoms of Minamata disease, including severe convulsions and deformed limbs. Some have argued the disease, caused by acute mercury poisoning, should not have been named after the city.

But now, in a move dividing public opinion, the name is expected to become a symbol of international efforts to address mercury poisoning, with the U.N. Environment Program set to name a new pact to restrict the use and transfer of mercury to protect public health and the environment: "the Minamata Treaty."

"I expect it will be a significant opportunity to show the entire world the struggle this city has gone through to overcome the tragedy," Mayor Katsuaki Miyamoto said. "I believe the treaty will contribute to preventing mercury contamination around the world."

A decision to hold an international conference in October in Kumamoto and to give the name Minamata to the treaty is expected to be formally made at the fifth round of discussions on the treaty in Geneva that takes place from Sunday.

The idea of naming the treaty after Minamata was proposed in 2010 by then-Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama so Japan could show the world its determination not to see the tragedy of mercury poisoning repeated.

Around 600 to 800 conference delegates from some 120 countries are expected to visit Minamata, some 75 km south of the city of Kumamoto, for a one-day trip sometime during the several days of discussions at the planned conference this fall.

"We want to show them the Minamata Disease Municipal Museum and enable them to hold exchanges with the disease patients, while presenting our efforts to create an environmentally friendly city," said Eiji Kawano, the city's planning division chief.

"I think it will be meaningful if those in charge of restricting mercury use see what happened in the Minamata incident on the actual spot and hear what the patients have to say, even if it is only for a short time," Kawano said.

But Ryuko Sakamoto, a longtime supporter of the disease sufferers, expressed opposition to naming the treaty after the city.

"I think it is necessary to build a mercury regulation treaty, but I cannot accept the proposed name as it will send the wrong message to the world that the Minamata issue has already been settled," he said.

Born in a farming family in one of the disease-affected areas in Minamata, Sakamoto, 78, a former fighter jet pilot, was recently diagnosed as showing symptoms of Minamata disease himself. "I have become not only a supporter but also an interested party," he said.

Minamata disease, caused by mercury-laced water dumped by a plant of chemical maker Chisso Corp. into the Shiranui Sea, an inland sea surrounded by Minamata and other cities as well as several islands, was officially recognized in 1956.

It is said the number of those affected has already reached tens of thousands in the coastal areas, where people are believed to have regularly eaten mercury-contaminated seafood. But up to now, only 2,973 people have officially been recognized as patients, including people in Niigata Prefecture, where a similar disease was confirmed in 1965.

Concerns have grown that potential patients will be abandoned, since the government stopped accepting applications in July from uncertified disease sufferers for state redress. The aid features a ¥2.1 million lump-sum payment and monthly medical allowances, and more than 65,000 people have applied for it.

Yoko Oshita, a 38-year-old Osaka resident whose parents are from the Shiranui coastal area, may be a potential patient in the future.

Due to her worsening health since childhood, Oshita quit her job as an elementary school teacher and was diagnosed at an Osaka hospital as having "suspected congenital Minamata disease" in 2006 after showing symptoms characteristic of the disease, including sensory disorder in her limbs.

Her application for the redress program was rejected in 2011, but she plans to fight on, saying, "My struggle with Minamata disease just started six years ago, and I think there must be other young potential patients like me."

The 65,000 applicants are not necessarily showing acute symptoms now, but it is feared their symptoms may worsen as they get older, said Masanori Hanada, director and professor at the Open Research Center for Minamata Studies at Kumamoto Gakuen University.

"It is necessary to conduct far-reaching followup studies on how the symptoms develop among certified, as well as unrecognized, sufferers," Hanada said.

Takeshi Yasuma, a member of a nongovernmental organization that has participated in past treaty talks, said the latest draft of the accord is insufficient because it does not require polluters to clean up contaminated sites and compensate those affected.

"If a disaster like Minamata happens in the future, the victims will have to go through hardships just like those in Minamata have done under the planned treaty," said Yasuma, who attended the past four rounds of negotiations as a member of the Citizens Against Chemicals Pollution.

Masami Ogata, a 54-year-old Minamata disease patient, said, "I understand what the opponents are saying, but I think the other way around, that we should accept the name to widely publicize the fact that Minamata victims have not yet been fully redressed even more than 55 years after the official recognition of the disease.

"The disease has damaged not only people in Minamata but also its community as well as its natural environment. The name of Minamata has enabled us to recall what happened here," said Ogata, who regularly gives lectures on his experiences as a patient at the municipal museum.

Reflecting Ogata's view, Mayor Miyamoto agreed that hosting the conference in Kumamoto and naming the treaty after the city "will never lead to an end to the Minamata issue."

Kumamoto Gakuen's Hanada said it would be misleading if the central government intends to show that it has properly dealt with the Minamata issue while leaving struggling victims to one side.

There must be many sufferers who did not apply for the latest redress program due to fears over persisting prejudice, and the whole picture of the Minamata damage still remains unexplained, he said: "It is necessary to conduct comprehensive health checks in areas along the Shiranui Sea to clarify it.

"Moreover, there remain around 1.5 million cu. meters of dredged-up sludge containing methylmercury under reclaimed land along Minamata Bay," he added, comparing it to a temporary storage facility for nuclear waste.

The steel wall holding the sludge — expected to remain effective for only 50 years — "may collapse if it is hit by a big earthquake. We also have to consider how to ultimately dispose of the confined sludge," Hanada said.

Regardless of the pros and cons of naming the treaty after the city, Minamata issues are still far from being dealt with.

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