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The Diet is set to enact new legislation offering financial relief to more victims of Minamata mercury-poisoning in the 1950s and ’60s by easing standards of recognition of the disease.

The Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito ruling coalition and the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition force, officially agreed Thursday on details of the bill. The new legislation will be the first broadening of the scope of sufferers entitled to compensation since 1995.

The legislation could also affect the timing of the next general election because it is one of three key bills Prime Minister Taro Aso wants passed in the current Diet session.

The three parties agreed to widen the scope of Minamata disease symptoms by recognizing victims complaining of systematic sensory impairment.

About 30,000 people, mainly in Kumamoto and Kagoshima prefectures, are currently seeking relief. The Environment Ministry estimates about 20,000 of them will be eligible for some form of compensation.

Minamata disease, which was officially recognized in September 1968 as an illness caused by pollution, is a neurological disorder that paralyzes the central nervous system and causes birth defects. Its symptoms include numbness, persistent headaches and impaired balance.

The disease has killed hundreds of people, disabled thousands and produced birth defects after locals ate contaminated fish and shellfish in the city of Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture. First coming to light in May 1956, it is one of Japan’s worst cases of pollution-related illness.

The ruling bloc and the DPJ also agreed to allow chemical maker Chisso Corp., which released mercury-tainted water into the sea from a synthetic resin factory, to split into two entities.

Following the split, Chisso’s holding company will be responsible for financially compensating the victims and its subsidiary will take over business operations.

The idea of splitting the company, which traded as Shin-Nippon Chisso Hiryo K.K. before it was renamed in 1965, has triggered protests from mercury-poisoning victims because the holding company is to be liquidated once it completes the compensation payments.

Some sufferers say they oppose the liquidation as it would give the impression that Chisso will no longer be responsible for the disease.

“It means allowing Chisso to escape its responsibility and put an end to the issue by cutting off the patients,” Toshio Oishi, 69, leader of a patients’ association, told reporters Thursday in Tokyo.

He said the association will continue its protests, including a sit-in, in a bid to block the bill’s passage.

Meanwhile, Yoshiharu Murakami, 60, the head of another patients’ group that supports the measure, was pleased about the criteria’s expansion.

“We hoped more people would get relief as soon as possible. It would be best (if) this leads to a total resolution of the issue,” he said.

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