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CORRECTED-Lawyer asks UN to intervene with Cerrejon mine on behalf of indigenous Colombians

Julia Symmes Cobb

(Corrects to clarify origin of statement)

By Julia Symmes Cobb

BOGOTA, June 18 (Reuters) - A British barrister is asking the United Nations Special Rapporteur to intervene with coal miner Cerrejon on behalf of Wayuu indigenous people in Colombia allegedly suffering damage to their health amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Cerrejon, which is owned equally by BHP Group, Anglo American and Glencore, rejected the allegations, saying information in the claim was wrong.

Cerrejon had initially reduced operations during Colombia's nationwide quarantine, but began normalizing its work last month.

The request is the latest salvo in long-running disputes between the company and the Wayuu over water use and pollution, dust, noise and health issues in desert La Guajira province.

The Wayuu, who often get by on subsistence ranching and sometimes gasoline smuggling, have long been plagued by malnutrition among children and a lack of fresh drinking water.

The Provincial community, located near Cerrejon's mine, "have filed an urgent request for the intervention of the UN Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations," said a statement shared by London-based barrister Monica Feria-Tinta.

"The company has resumed operations during COVID-19, placing the community at risk and increasing their vulnerability in a context of water scarcity," the statement said. "In the prevailing lockdown it is even more difficult for the Wayuu to access water."

The Wayuu have a history of respiratory diseases and are vulnerable to coronavirus, it said, adding that when mining activities were suspended there was an improvement in the community's health.

"In essence, the communities are seeking the suspension of all mining activities by Cerrejon in the current context," Feria-Tinta said in the statement.

The claim is mostly based on a recent ruling from Colombia's Constitutional Court which ordered the company to prevent water pollution and control emissions, among other things, Feria-Tinta told Reuters via email. The United Nations may take some weeks to reply, she said.

Cerrejon roundly rejected the statement.

"We emphatically reject the presentation of inaccurate and biased information about Cerrejon's social and environmental performance, including completely false data on the company's water use and air quality," Cerrejon said in a statement.

The company is ready to provide information to the United Niations, it said, adding it has redirected social investment to the province's health system amid COVID-19 and donated 12 million liters of water to communities including Provincial.

"We refute strongly the allegations and the insinuation that we have acted inappropriately, both in general and during the COVID-19 pandemic," it added.

Pollution can exacerbate coronavirus infections, air quality experts and medics have said. (Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb; editing by Jonathan Oatis)