MAC: Mines and Communities

Peasants in Peru near showdown on mercury spill

Published by MAC on 2005-03-05

Peasants in Peru near showdown on mercury spill

by Peter Hecht, Miami Herald

5th March 2005

Nearly five years after the June 2, 2000, mercury spill that contaminated Choropampa and two neighboring towns, mediation talks recently collapsed in the United States.

Choropampa, Peru - As the flatbed truck from the largest gold mine in South America rumbled along a remote Andean highway, its poorly secured cargo shifted with twists in the road. Two metal canisters of liquid mercury tumbled, and at least one began to leak. The truck continued on.

Curious townspeople from this small farming community rushed to the highway. Rocio Guzmán's three young daughters picked up the silvery droplets with spoons and took them home to play with them. Others gathered the mercury with pieces of paper or their bare hands, thinking it was a precious metal from the nearby Yanacocha gold mine or a medicinal elixir. Children tasted it.

Guzmán, her husband and daughters were soon hospitalized for two months with mercury intoxication. A purplish rash covered her body. Meanwhile, a neighbor, Consuelo Chuguitucto, developed searing headaches and began to lose her vision.

''Now she can't see anything,'' said her mother, Lucy Levya, standing outside the family home where her 23-year-old daughter, blind and depressed, refused to accept visitors.

Four and one-half years after the June 2, 2000, mercury spill that contaminated Choropampa and two neighboring towns, mediation talks recently collapsed in Colorado in an unusual lawsuit pitting 1,100 Peruvian peasants against the Denver-based Newmont Mining Company, the world's largest gold mining firm and principal operator of the Yanacocha mine.

Now the peasants of Choropampa, who earn a few dollars a day harvesting onions and grains and bringing home-baked breads to market, appear headed for a high-profile legal showdown involving two powerful California law firms and potentially millions of dollars in damages.

After losing a three-year fight to keep the lawsuit out of U.S. courts, Newmont announced late last year that it would participate in settlement talks before two retired Colorado judges. But mediation talks Jan. 19-20 failed to produce a settlement and the plaintiffs announced they will go ahead with their suit before Denver District Judge Robert Hyatt.

''We're ready to go back into active combat,'' said the plaintiffs' lawyer, Ken Crowder, who claims the suit -- if successful -- would mark the first time an American firm is held accountable for environmental damages overseas.

Crowder's firm, Engstrom, Lipscomb & Lack of Los Angeles, worked on the California case dramatized in the movie Erin Brockovich. Crowder said the legal investigator portrayed in the film is working on the Choropampa case, though Brockovich hasn't been to Peru. Newmont's legal team includes another California heavy-weight, Latham & Watkins.

In Peru, the mercury spill has also become a rallying cry for demonstrations against several foreign mining interests over alleged negative social and environmental impacts and political corruption. Mining accounts for half of Peru's annual exports.

''The people are rising up in a call to conscience,'' said Choropampa's mayor, Lot Saavedra, 26, who says he has intense kidney pain as a result of the spill. ``They are discovering the totality of abuses by companies only seeking to get the gold.''

Other residents complain of blindness, neurological damage, memory loss, muscular pain and other health problems.

In November, Newmont backed off from a planned expansion of the Yanacocha mine that over time could yield up to 3.7 million ounces of gold from the Cerro Quilish region of the northern state of Cajamarca. That's where Spanish conquistadores captured Inca chief Atahualpa in 1533, forced his followers to fill a room full of gold and silver as a ransom and then executed him anyway.

Last fall, thousands of indigenous residents blockaded the road to the Yanacocha mine, claiming the Cerro Quilish project threatened a regional water supply and could sully rivers with toxic sediments. Directors of the mine, which produced 2.8 million ounces of gold in 2003, later announced that they had failed to ''understand the magnitude'' of community concerns and would further study the expansion. James Otto, an environmental law professor at the University of Denver School of Law, said Newmont's attempt to mediate the mercury lawsuit likely reflect less the fear of losing in court than an effort to appear socially responsible.

'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.''

Yanacocha and Newmont officials blamed unsafe practices by a Peruvian trucking contractor for the spill of 330 pounds of mercury near Choropampa, San Juan and Magdalena. The mercury, a byproduct of gold mining, was being trucked to Lima for export to Spain for thermometers and other uses.

Hock said Yanacocha spent $10 million to treat villagers, clean up the mercury spill and monitor the environment. Yanacocha also paid cash settlements of up to $6,000 each to more than 700 residents, who are not part of the U.S. lawsuit. In interviews, several Choropampa residents said they were further endangered shortly after the accident when mine employees offered up to $30 per kilo of recovered mercury, prompting many people, including children, to gather up the chemical. Residents without protective equipment were also later hired to sweep up the highway and remove sediment.

''It was an accident that became a crime,'' said Alfonso Carrasco, the husband of Rocio Guzmán and an environmental activist who claims that Yanacocha employees consistently downplayed the danger of the mercury.

Yanacocha officials said early efforts to enlist residents in the mercury recovery went against company policy. A Yanacocha ''Mercury Spill Incident Report'' said the actions were intended to get people to hand over mercury already in their possession. It added that an ambulance with a loud speaker was later summoned ``to warn local people.''

Yanacocha also agreed to provide ''peace of mind'' for hundreds of residents who tested positive for mercury exposure by paying for medical insurance to cover five years of follow-up care at Cajamarca area clinics. The nsurance is due to expire in December. The company incident report written a year after the spill said ''medical experts'' contracted by Yanacocha were ''confident that there are no long-term health issues'' for residents.

Crowder said Erico Cerquín, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, remains hospitalized in Lima, suffering from uncontrollable tremors and unable to feed himself. The U.S. lawyers are paying his bills.

And Rosaura Cuenca, whose family accepted a financial settlement of about $2,500 from Yanacocha, says she has headaches that ''feel like I'm going to die.'' She is now terrified by a strange, tumor-like growth in her calf.

She said her doctor told her mercury levels in her blood - once four times the acceptable limit - are normal and that the growth isn't related to the spill. Her doctor declined to authorize more tests, and Cuenca says she can't afford them.

''The doctor told me it's not from contamination,'' she said. "I think it is. I'm sick. I'm dizzy and I'm in pain. They say there's no reason to worry. But all I do is worry.''

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