The Environment Agency will reopen the case of a now-deceased man whose family tried for more than 16 years to have him recognized as a victim of Minamata disease, the head of the agency told reporters Friday.

Kumamoto Prefecture had originally rejected the man’s to be recognized as a sufferer of the mercury pollution-caused disease and receive government compensation in 1979.

The man, whose name was not released, appealed but died in 1980 at age 57 before a decision was made. Close relatives then pursued his claim but finally dropped the case in 1997. “(The agency) recognizes that it made a mistake involving the judgment on the applicant’s appeal, so we will nullify its February 1997 withdrawal of the application and reopen the case,” Kenji Manabe, the agency’s director general, said, adding he expects a judgment by March at the latest.

On three different occasions, the agency prepared decisions to recognize the man as a victim of Minamata disease who deserved compensation, according to a two week-investigation, which included a search for relevant documents and interviews with officials formerly involved with the case.

However, requests from Kumamoto Prefecture to postpone the decision as well as confusion over how to treat new postmortem evidence led to the agency’s protracted handling of the petition.

The man, a native of the prefecture who worked for Chisso Co., originally applied for recognition and compensation in 1974. When his bid was rejected five years later, he appealed to the Environment Agency to overturn the decision.

Frustrated after the case dragged on for more than a decade-and-a-half, the man’s family decided to drop the appeal after repeated inquiries to the agency in which they were only told a decision was still pending.

Friday evening, three representatives of the deceased man’s family met with officials of the environment agency and received copies of the investigation.

“The family, and we as representatives of the family, would like to see that responsibility is made clear,” said Shinya Heguri, one of the representatives. “We were stunned to learn that the agency and Kumamoto Prefecture were in contact so frequently and especially that (the agency) accepted the prefecture’s requests not to release the decision,” said Toru Araya, another representative, after thumbing through the report.

Hundreds of people died and thousands were disabled or born with disabilities in the 1950s and 1960s after eating seafood contaminated with mercury compounds dumped into Minamata Bay in Kumamoto Prefecture by Chisso Corp.

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