Peruvians sue Newmont Mining Company over mercury poisoning

Tuesday, March 8, 2005

The Peruvian flag.

Peruvians living near the site of a release of mercury are preparing to sue a U.S. mining company, announcing last Saturday that they will bring their case before a Denver judge.

On June 2, 2000, a serious accident in the province of Cajamarca, in Peru, poisoned many residents with mercury, a highly toxic heavy metal. A truck from Newmont Mining Company dumped two metal canisters of mercury along an Andean highway, in the communities of San Juan, Choropampa, and Magdalena. Curious townspeople (mostly children) picked up the silvery droplets, and some even drank some of it. Many residents became sick from severe mercury poisoning. Some of those who came in contact with the mercury suffered blindness, and one even had a purplish rash on her body.

Over 300 people directly suffered the effects of mercury poisoning.

As the owners of the Yanacocha mine which produced the mercury, Newmont Mining offered up to US$6 thousand to more than 700 local residents, but over 1,100 others are still engaged in a legal battle with Newmont over the case.

In today's global economy, many international businesses have looked overseas to maintain their profits, but environmental law professor James Otto is asking about the cost to the environment and public health. "Any company that wants to mine internationally now must not only have the legal right to mine but also a 'social license' to operate," he said. "Peru has been a wake-up call."

As the Peruvian residents gear up for their lawsuit against Denver-based Newmont Mining, the world's largest gold mining firm, some of these important questions may finally be answered. After the breakdown of mediation talks with Newmont on January 20, the residents and their lawyer decided to stop negotiating behind closed doors and take their case to the public. Last Saturday, March 5, 2005, they announced that they are bringing their suit before Denver District Judge Robert Hyatt. "If successful," states Ken Krowder who represents the plaintiffs, "[this] would mark the first time an American firm is held accountable for environmental damages overseas."

This is not the first time Newmont Mining has had trouble with an emerging Third World environmental movement. Recently, in August 2004, a US$543 million lawsuit was filed against Newmont Mining by the Indonesian Environmental Ministry and local villagers. They claim that pollution caused by the company’s mining activities has caused serious illnesses and other health problems, including skin disease, tumors, birth defects, and a decline in fish stocks, a staple food. One particular mining practice used frequently by Newmont Mining in Indonesia is submarine tailings disposal, a waste disposal method for mercury and arsenic that is outlawed in the United States.

At least six Newmont Mining managers, including an American and an Australian, face up to 15 years in a Jakarta prison for environmental and corporate crime in that case.

The local Peruvian residents are continuing their fight for safer mining practices and compensation for existing damage and injuries. Thousands of local townspeople protested against the Yanacocha mine last fall, demanding protection for the local water supply.

Newmont Mining officials have blamed the June 2000 mercury spill on a contractor, and have lost the battle to keep the case out of the American court system.