A devastating mercury spill by the world's richest gold mining corporation transforms a quiet peasant village in Peru's Andean mountains into a hotbed of civil resistance. A courageous young mayor emerges to lead his people on a quest for health care and justice. But powerful interests conspire to thwart the villagers at every turn in this 2-year epic chronicle of the real price of gold.
THE SPILL On June 2, 2000, a truck from the Yanacocha gold mine spilled 151 kg of liquid elemental mercury along a 40 km stretch of highway passing through Choropampa and two neighboring towns. Villagers were not told the mercury was toxic. Assuming it was azogue, an ancient cure-all, they collected mercury in bottles and jars using their hands, sticks and brooms. Children were especially fascinated with the alluring silvery balls of liquid that sparkled in the bright sun; they played with it, spilling mercury on dirt floors and beds, near gardens and animals and inside the local school. Elemental mercury, or metallic mercury, evaporates rapidly at warm temperatures like those found in Choropampa at the time of the spill. Gregory Camacho, an industrial hygienist at the University of Columbia hospital in New York, specializes in cleaning up mercury spills. "Mercury is very difficult to clean-up on regular floors," says Camacho in the film, "because it goes into every nook and cranny that it can find... On a dirt road or dirt surface it would definitely burrow." Camacho explains that even after all visible liquid mercury has been cleaned-up, mercury vapors may remain in the air, condensing and evaporating as temperatures rise and fall. Elemental mercury is most toxic to humans in its evaporated, vapor-form. The World Health Organization says that when elemental mercury is inhaled, approximately 80 percent of the mercury remains in the body where it can damage the lungs, kidneys and central nervous system. Chronic exposure may cause birth defects and miscarriages. Symptoms of poisoning can include skin rashes, nausea, muscle and kidney pain, respiratory difficulty and loss of consciousness. Elemental mercury can be transformed into organic mercury or methyl mercury through contact with organic matter in the environment. Organic mercury is extremely toxic to humans because it can accumulate and move up the food chain. A World Bank report on the mercury spill in Choropampa acknowledged that "a certain proportion of the mercury that remains in the environment, either in the soil or transported into nearby waterways, can be expected to be transformed into organic methyl mercury." Chronic exposure may include neurological disorders, severe birth defects and mental illness.