Unqualified Minamata cases to be settled

Ruling bloc accepts court-brokered 'full relief' plan

Kyodo News

The government will accept a court-brokered settlement in a damages suit filed by unrecognized sufferers of Minamata disease, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said Thursday.

“When I think of the feelings of those who have badly suffered from Minamata disease for a long time, I want to accept the Kumamoto District Court’s settlement plan to achieve full relief for them,” Hatoyama told reporters at his office in the evening, adding he will also work to reach a similar conclusion with other patients who are not part of the damages suit.

The move comes after the district court proposed Monday that lump sums of ¥2.1 million and monthly medical allowances be paid to each of the unrecognized patients, plus a ¥2.95 billion settlement for their group.

The proposed settlement terms were presented during the fourth session of court-mediated negotiations between 2,126 plaintiffs and the defendants — the government, the Kumamoto Prefecture and chemical maker Chisso Corp. — over a damages suit filed in 2005. A Chisso factory in the prefecture released mercury-tainted water into the sea, causing the disease.

The monthly medical allowances suggested by the court amount to ¥12,900 for people aged below 70, ¥15,900 for people above 70 and ¥17,700 for people who are hospitalized.

The terms also include setting up a third-party panel to decide who should be covered.

The government is working on rectifying cases involving people who do not meet the strict eligibility criteria for Minamata pollution victims, in line with settlement terms agreed to under a special law that took effect last July.

Recognized Minamata disease patients each receive a ¥16 million to ¥18 million lump sum, in addition to a pension.

In previous negotiations, the government offered to expand coverage to a broader age range, which the plaintiffs have said they would consider.

The roughly 2,600-member group — plaintiffs in the Kumamoto suit and in similar suits at the Tokyo and Osaka district courts — plans to decide whether to accept the latest court proposal at a general meeting, possibly March 28.

The next settlement talks are slated for March 29.

Minamata disease is a neurological illness caused by mercury-tainted water. Its name derives from the first reported incidence, linked to pollution released into the sea by a factory operated by Chisso in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, in 1956.

The disorder was also confirmed in Niigata Prefecture in 1965, linked to contaminated wastewater from a plant owned by Showa Denko K.K.

More plaintiffs have joined the suit since 2005, as the state remains reluctant to review the existing certification standards for Minamata patients, even after the Supreme Court in 2004 backed broader criteria.