Environmentalist priest appeals to premier and health minister for “just and humanitarian” solutions to Choropampa’s health crisis

Environmental activist Father Marco Arana wrote an open letter to Peruvian Premier Yehude Simon and Health Minister Oscar Ugarte, demanding “just and humanitarian” solutions for Choropampa, a small town in the Cajamarca highlands still feeling the effects of a mercury spill that occurred eight years ago.

“I am writing this letter in solidarity with the victims of the Choropampa mercury spill because our brothers’ situation cannot wait any longer and because a just and humanitarian solution is in your hands,” writes Arana in an open letter addressed to Simon, Ugarte and Environment Minister Antonio Brack Egg.

“I hope that the Premier’s humanitarian sensitivity and that the Health Minister’s obligation to guarantee health for all will begin to show signs that the government is listening to the population,” said Arana in comments to the Coordinadora Nacional de Radio, CNR. “Industrial activity, though it plays a role in the economic development of our country, can’t affect the population’s rights.”

In June 2000, a flatbed truck owned by the Romero Group’s transport company RANSA, under contract to  Yanacocha, South America’s largest gold mine, spilled 151.5 kg, or 334 pounds, of elemental liquid mercury over a 45 kilometer, or 27 mile, stretch of highway, passing through Choropampa and two neighboring towns. The mercury leaked out of improperly sealed containers.

People gathered the toxic metal — many with their bare hands — believing that it was a precious metal from the nearby Yanacocha gold mine or a medicinal elixir. Many stored it in their poorly ventilated, small homes. According to the Peruvian government, more than 900 people were poisoned and many severely burned.

Yanacocha, owned by Colorado-based Newmont, and Lima-based Compañía de Minas Buenaventura, claims it paid out $14 million in medical treatment, clean-up and public works projects, paying between 2,000 to 21,000 soles ($570-$6,000) in compensation to individuals whose health was affected by the spill.

Mercury affects the nervous system and can cause nausea, vomiting, breathing problems, kidney and skin damage, as well as sensations such as “pins and needles” and numbness, usually in the hands, feet and sometimes around the mouth. If mercury is inhaled, 80 percent of the poison remains in the body.

“Choropampa is experiencing a serious health crisis and the authorities aren’t attending to it because they are simply listening to Yanacocha’s official version, according to which the area was fully decontaminated,” said Arana.

But people are still sick, and more and more are becoming ill, said Arana, who lists specific cases and recent hospitalizations in his letter.

Some of the doctors, Arana writes “will tell you, off the record, that (people are ill) because of the mercury, but they don’t dare speak publicly or write anything in the clinical history… they don’t want to risk losing their jobs or their professional reputation because Yanacocha will find 20 scientists that will prove otherwise.”

According to Congressman Werner Cabrera, of the Union for Peru political party, UPP, the government has yet to implement recommendations made by a parliamentary commission he headed.

“Though six months have passed since the report, which includes a series of recommendations on how to attend those affected by the spill, was unanimously approved,” said Cabrera, “the government has done absolutely nothing.”

The report recommended, among other things, that a group of internationally accredited toxicologists and Health Ministry experts immediately travel to Choropampa to survey the level of contamination in the area.

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