Environmental protection has been relatively lax in Peru. The country did not have an environmental ministry until 2008 and the mining ministry continues to sign off on environmental impact studies for mining projects.

The director of the environmental group Cooperaccion, Jose de Echave, called the Cajacay spill another example of government neglect. He said local authorities in mining districts are unprepared to deal with such incidents and companies have inadequate safety precautions in place.

"What is evident with this spill is that companies in their zones of influence effectively self-regulate. There is no presence of the state to control or regulate," De Echave said.

One of the most serious toxic spills on record in Peru occurred in 2000 in Cajamarca when a tanker truck carrying mercury crashed and broke open in the village of Choropampa, sickening more than 700 people.

The mercury belonged to the Yanacocha consortium, whose majority owner is U.S.-based Newmont Mining Co. and which is in charge of the Conga project that has triggered the opposition in Cajamarca.

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Associated Press writer Franklin Briceno contributed to this report.

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Frank Bajak on Twitter: http://twitter.com/fbajak

Franklin Briceno on Twitter: http://twitter.com/franklinbriceno

Carla Salazar on Twitter: http://twitter.com/cardensal

Copyright 2011 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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