There is growing debate over how best to reflect the lessons learned from Minamata disease in the so-called Mercury Treaty now being discussed with the aim of reducing the use of mercury around the world to prevent environmental damage and harm to humans.
The treaty is scheduled to be signed in Japan in late 2013. Former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said in a commemorative ceremony for the victims of Minamata disease in 2010 that Japan wanted to host a diplomatic conference to adopt the pact and call it the Minamata Treaty to demonstrate the nation’s determination that the grave damage caused by mercury poisoning is not repeated in other countries.
Three rounds of international discussions on the treaty have been held, in Sweden, Japan and Kenya.
There will be two more conferences, including one in Uruguay in late June, and a final session in 2013 in Japan, with the U.N. Environment Program serving as secretariat.
Despite Hatoyama’s passionate commitment, the draft treaty in its current form does not refer to “the core elements of the lessons learned from Minamata,” according to a Japanese nongovernmental organization that has participated in the negotiations.
When there is mercury contamination, the polluter and administrative authorities must uncover the full scope of the damage through sufficient study and disclose all information, while assuming the responsibility of compensating the affected people and cleaning up the contaminated site, said the NGO, the Citizens Against Chemicals Pollution.
“These are the major lessons learned from Minamata, but the draft does not specifically refer to the responsibility that should be assumed by the polluter and the administration,” said Takeshi Yasuma, a CACP official.
“If this goes on, the envisaged treaty will not be useful for contamination victims in seeking compensation and restoration of the polluted site and in demanding sufficient investigation and information disclosure about the disaster,” the Tokyo-based group argued in a statement issued jointly with around 500 individuals and NGOs around the world.
The statement was recently submitted to Japan’s environment, foreign and industry ministers.
The NGOs and those who have supported Minamata victims also say they have concerns that adopting the pact and naming it the Minamata Treaty may create a misunderstanding that Japan’s Minamata problems are settled.
The Minamata disaster was caused by chemical maker Chisso Corp. dumping mercury-laced wastewater into Minamata Bay. It is still unknown how many people have been affected, even 56 years after the health problems were officially recognized, as intensive medical checkups have never been conducted in and around the affected areas in Kumamoto and Kagoshima prefectures.
A similar disease was later confirmed in Niigata Prefecture, this one caused by a Showa Denko K.K. plant dumping wastewater.
The government introduced redress measures for uncertified patients in 2010, featuring a lump sum of ¥2.1 million and monthly medical allowances, for which more than 50,000 people have applied.
Compared with this, the number of officially recognized patients is only around 3,000, of whom three-quarters have died.
It has been pointed out that there are no doubt more potential patients who could develop symptoms as they grow older, but the government has decided to stop accepting applications at the end of July.
Criticizing the decision, Kenji Utsunomiya, president of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, said in a statement that it is “premature” to set the deadline because it will lead to “deserting potential victims.”
It has also not yet been decided how to deal with around 1.5 million cu. meters of dredged sludge that contains methylmercury.
Improving the iron wall holding the sludge, including earthquake-proof reinforcements, is going to be a major problem going forward, according to local authorities, especially because the wall is rated to last only about 50 years.
Yasuma said these issues should be resolved so the envisaged pact will deserve to be called the Minamata Treaty, and he expects Japan, which has dealt with Minamata disease, “to take the initiative in making the treaty suited to the name.”
“It is significant to name the pact the Minamata Treaty as it will enable the world to preserve the experiences of Minamata,” said Teruyoshi Hayamizu, head of the Environment Ministry’s Environmental Health and Safety Division, while indicating that it is on the agenda of how to reflect regional issues in international efforts to tackle mercury-related problems.
As part of the effort to share the experiences of Minamata with the international community, the government compiled a booklet titled “Lessons from Minamata Disease and Mercury Management in Japan” in Japanese and six other languages — Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish — to be distributed at the treaty meetings, according to Hayamizu.
On the expansion of Minamata disease, the booklet notes: “The government’s failure to prevent the harmful impact on human health from increasing, due to not taking strict measures against the responsible companies for a long time, still provides valuable lessons today.
“It shows how important it is to take countermeasures quickly, as well as how preventive measures should be taken even when there is scientific uncertainty over the cause of the problem,” it says.
Hayamizu also said the government is willing to hold another seminar in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, after the June Uruguay meeting to brief the residents there on how the negotiations are going and to exchange views with them on the treaty.
In Minamata, meanwhile, Yoichi Tani, 63, is keeping an eye on the treaty negotiations.
“The ongoing talks must aim at mediating the differences among the countries before concluding the treaty. Thus, there must be a gap between their realistic decisions and the ideals of the local people (of Minamata),” said Tani, who has supported disease victims for more than 40 years.
“But I expect the international community to share its knowledge about the hazardous nature of mercury, based on the experiences of Minamata, and I hope the conclusion of the Minamata Treaty will not close the curtain on the Minamata issue as the whole picture of this issue remains unexplained,” he said.