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Lead poisoning lawsuits inspire African citizens’ fight for environmental justice

December 30th, 2020
topic:Human Rights
by:Bob Koigi
located in:Kenya
tags:Africa, environment, environmental justice, human rights, lead poisoning

A class action lawsuit in Kenya where a community living in a low income neighbourhood at the outskirts of Kenya’s coastal city of Mombasa successfully sued the government and a smelting company for lead poisoning and damage to environment continues to inspire similar lawsuits in the continent even as it sets a precedent on environmental justice.

When an Indian company, Metal Refinery EPZ, opened a smelter for recycling batteries next to Owino Uhuru, a slum, in 2007, residents looked forward to more jobs and economic opportunities. But years later the company would start releasing toxic materials into nearby rivers that the locals used for bathing. Workers who didn’t have enough protective gear and were exposed to the harmful chemicals started dying.

The 3,000 residents of the slum were exposed to lead exhibiting signs including coughing, dizziness, diarrhea and scaly skin rashes. Women had miscarriages or lost their babies during birth. It took Phyllis Omido, who was working in the company as a community relations manager to lift the lid on the dangerous operations of the company when her son was tested for lead poisoning. Results showed that his blood had lead levels of 35 microgrammes per decilitre, the Center for Diseases Control indicates that lead levels above microgrammes per decilitre are dangerous.

Phyllis launched a heightened campaign to have the factory shut after more residents were tested and found to have abnormally high levels of lead in their blood. The government finally shut the business in 2014. But the damage had already been done and more residents, majority who couldn’t afford specialised medical care, continued to experience health complications.

Phyllis founded the Center for Justice, Governance and Environmental Action, an environmental and human rights advocacy organisation, and sued the Kenyan government and the smelting company for violating Kenyan environmental and human rights, which cost the lives of the residents of Owino Uhuru. A protracted four year battle culminated in the Kenyan government being ordered to pay the community $12 million and institute a clean-up process of the affected area. In his ruling the Land and Environment Court judge said that the residents’ rights to a healthy environment, life and highest standards of health, safe and clean water had been violated.

The case caught global attention for its precedence setting and for defining the culpability of governments and companies in matters environment. Environmental pundits say that at a time when companies and multinationals continue to violate laws and governments lacklustre enforcement of these laws the Kenyan example of holding government responsible is a major win in environment litigation. “For the longest time ordinary citizens have been at the mercy of companies that continue to openly flout environmental regulations. Governments have also not been keen on enforcing environmental laws which has encouraged companies to flout them. The casualties are children who develop respiratory diseases at a tender age and women who miscarriage as a result of exposure to harmful chemicals. The Kenyan ruling has set an example by apportioning the biggest responsibility and culpability to the government. At the end of the day, the success of any legislation is hinged on the commitment of any government to its implementation,” said Tabitha Owiti a Kenya-based environmentalist.

The Kenyan case continues to inspire others continentally at a time when lead exposure continues to affect millions of African children with lifelong health complications with an estimated $134.7 billion being lost in Africa each year due to lead exposure. This, even as 1.2 billion tonnes of batteries continue to be processed in Africa every year while extracting lead amount equivalent to 8 percent of the global production.

In October this year Zambian women and children living around Kabwe lead mine, one of the world’s largest lead mines in Northern Zambia, filed a class lawsuit against Anglo American Plc at South Africa’s High Court, arguing that the company’s operations in a mine it operated from 1925 to 1945 caused massive lead poisoning among the locals after it failed to put in place the necessary measures to protect the locals.

The case that has attracted global attention comes as a Human Rights report indicated that over one third of residents of Kabwe area, approximately 76,000 people, live in townships that are lead contaminated. Other studies have indicated that half of the children living in these towns have lead levels in their blood that are dangerous and require immediate medical attention.

“Generations of children have been poisoned by the operations of the Kabwe mine, originally known as Broken Hill, which caused widespread contamination of the soil, dust, water, and vegetation. The main sources of this poisonous lead were from the smelter, ore processing and tailings dumps,” read a statement from Mbuyisa Moleele and Leigh Day the firm representing Kabwe residents.

Environmentalists now say Africa and the rest of the world is bound to experience an avalanche of environment-related class action lawsuits as more residents find justice and hope in courts. “For the longest time multinationals have had their way and residents living around mines have had to suffer the negative consequences of their operations. As the judicial systems now side with communities and the focus on environmental and human rights in rulings become more pronounced, we are going to see more communities moving to environmental courts and taking on big companies which is a huge win in the quest for environmental justice,” said Tabitha.

Article written by:
Bob Koigi
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
Kenya
When an Indian company, Metal Refinery EPZ, opened a smelter for recycling batteries next to Owino Uhuru, residents looked forward to more jobs and economic opportunities.
The 3,000 residents of the slum were exposed to lead exhibiting signs including coughing, dizziness, diarrhoea and scaly skin rashes.
Phyllis launched a heightened campaign to have the factory shut after more residents were tested and found to have abnormally high levels of lead in their blood.