PERU: Villagers Seek Justice

Mercury contamination near Peru mine leads to legal showdown in Denver court
Publisher Name: 
San Francisco Chronicle

As the flatbed truck left the largest gold mine in South
America, it rumbled down a remote Andean highway, laden with dangerous cargo
that shifted with each twist in the road.



Soon after leaving the Yanacocha mine, an empty chlorine gas cylinder rolled

into two metal canisters filled with liquid mercury, a byproduct of gold

extraction that was being trucked to Lima for use in thermometers.



Unbeknownst to the driver, at least one canister leaked 330 pounds of

glittering silver droplets onto the highway, attracting curious residents of

the small farming community called Choropampa.



Rocio Guzman's three young daughters picked up the droplets with spoons and

played with them in their rooms. Others gathered the liquid with pieces of

paper or their bare hands, thinking it was a precious metal or a medicinal

elixir. Children tasted it. Adults heated it in their kitchens, hoping to

extract gold.



Guzman, her husband and three daughters were soon hospitalized for several

months with mercury poisoning. A purplish rash covered Rocio's body. A

neighbor, 23-year-old Consuelo Chuguitucto, developed searing headaches and

lost her vision. "She can't see anything," said her mother, Lucy Levya,

standing outside the family home.



Four and a half years after the June 2, 2000, mercury spill contaminated

Choropampa and two neighboring towns, Denver-based Newmont Mining Corp., the

principal operator of Yanacocha, and lawyers for 1,100 Peruvian peasants

appear headed for a high-profile legal showdown that could involve millions

of dollars in damages.



Most of the plaintiffs earn a few dollars a day harvesting onions and

grains. If they win, their lawyers say, it would be the first time a U.S.

firm has been held accountable in a U.S. court for an environmental

contamination committed outside the country.



The peasants' lawsuit accuses Newmont, the world's largest gold mining firm,

of "fraudulently concealing the true hazard to human health and safety of

the spilled mercury." Newmont blames the Peruvian trucking contractor for

the 2000 spill.



After a three-year fight to keep the lawsuit out of U.S. courts, Newmont

agreed to settlement talks before two retired Colorado judges after a state

appellate court ruled that the lawsuit could proceed. But mediation talks in

Denver Jan. 19-20 failed to produce a settlement over unspecified damages

for "severe and permanent physical injuries and disabilities."



The plaintiffs then announced that they will go ahead with the lawsuit

before Denver District Judge Robert Hyatt.



"We're ready to go back into active combat," said the plaintiffs' lawyer,

Ken Crowder. "We believe our clients suffered devastating consequences as a

result of the spill."



In 1996, Crowder's firm, Engstrom, Lipscomb & Lack of Los Angeles, worked

with then-legal secretary Erin Brockovich to uncover how water supplies

contaminated by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. caused health problems among

town residents of a small San Bernardino County town -- a case dramatized in

the movie that bears her name. PG&E settled the lawsuit for $333 million.

Crowder said Brockovich is working on the Choropampa case, though she has

yet to visit Peru, where gold mining is the most lucrative growth industry.



Newmont's legal team includes the prominent law firm of Latham & Watkins,

whose San Francisco office is currently handling the case. Ernest J. Getto,

an attorney for the firm who has represented PG&E, ChevronTexaco and Newmont

in environmental and toxic tort litigation, referred all questions to

Newmont's Denver headquarters.



Newmont spokesman Doug Hock said the mining company still hopes to avoid a

trial, even though the plaintiffs have "very disparate views" over a

financial settlement. "We wanted to continue the settlement efforts, but the

plaintiffs' counsel did not," he said.



James Otto, an environmental law professor at the University of Denver

School of Law, said Newmont's attempt to negotiate a settlement doesn't

necessarily mean the company fears losing in court, but likely reflects a

strategy of appearing socially responsible given the problems at some of its

overseas operations.



Last September, Indonesian police detained six Newmont officials over

allegations of pollution from a company mine in Sulawesi province. Villagers

there charged that they had suffered illnesses and that their economic

livelihoods, which depend on catching fish, had been damaged by mine waste.

Five of the executives are still under house arrest, awaiting criminal

changes.



"Any company that wants to mine internationally now must not only have the

legal right to mine but also a social license to operate," Otto said. "Peru

has been a wake-up call."



Meanwhile, the Peru mercury spill has become a rallying cry for protests

against other foreign mining firms over alleged environmental damage and

political corruption. Mining accounts for half of Peru's annual exports and

makes the single largest contribution to the national economy.



"The people are rising up in a call to conscience," said Choropampa Mayor

Lot Saavedra, 26, who says he suffers from chronic kidney pain as a result

of the spill. "They are discovering the totality of abuses by companies only

seeking to get the gold."



Marco Morales, Yanacocha mine's environmental director, told a visiting tour

group that special protective seals are now required on all mercury

containers to prevent canisters from opening when toppled, and trucking

firms can no longer transport such material in uncovered vehicles.



After protests last fall, Newmont backed off from a planned expansion of

Yanacocha near the northern city of Cajamarca, where Spanish conquistadores

captured the Inca leader Atahualpa in 1533. His subjects were forced to fill

a room full with gold and silver as ransom. They did, but the Spanish

executed him anyway.



Choropampa residents have also protested against Yanacocha officials who

they say endangered them by offering as much as $30 a kilo (2.2 pounds) to

recover the mercury after the spill. Local residents were later hired

without protective gear to sweep and remove sediment from the highway. A

Yanacocha director, who asked not to be named, called that decision "a

mistake."



But a company report released a year after the spill said the decision was

intended to get residents to hand over mercury already in their possession.

The company also said it asked local authorities to send an ambulance with a

loud speaker "to warn locals of the toxic nature" of the chemical the day

after the accident.



Newmont spokesman Hock said even though "no cases of chronic injuries

related to the spill have been diagnosed," Yanacocha mine has already spent

$10 million to treat villagers, clean up the spill and monitor the

environment, and has doled out cash settlements of up to $6,000 each to more

than 700 residents who are not part of the U.S. lawsuit. For the hundreds

who tested positive for mercury exposure, Yanacocha agreed to provide

medical insurance until the end of 2005.



But the imminent end of the medical coverage worries those who say they

still suffer from blindness, neurological damage, memory loss and muscular

pain.



Erico Cerquin Saavedra remains hospitalized in Lima with uncontrollable

tremors. Violeta Mirando says her 7-year-old daughter, Jenny, still has

fainting spells. Rosaura Cuenca, whose family received a $2,500 settlement,

says she has a tumorlike growth on her calf and suffers from constant

headaches.



"The doctor told me it's not from contamination. I think it is. I'm sick.

I'm dizzy and I'm in pain," Cuenca said. "They say there's no reason to

worry. But all I do is worry."

AMP Section Name:Natural Resources
  • 116 Human Rights