Mining giant Anglo American is set to face a class action over the lead-mining activities it conducted in Zambia almost half a century ago.
The multinational miner’s exploits in the Zambian town of Kabwe have come back to haunt it, following allegations of an environmental disaster that has resulted in lead contamination, which has had a devastating effect on nearby communities.
UK-based law firm Leigh Day and South African attorney Zanele Mbuyisa have partnered up to prepare the class action on behalf of the communities affected by operations at Kabwe lead mine dating back almost 50 years.
The mine, initially established by British company Broken Hill in 1904 – two years after the discovery of lead and zinc in the area – was later controlled by Anglo American.
It was called Broken Hill Mine before being renamed Kabwe Mine in 1966, two years after Zambia’s independence.
It was the world’s largest lead mine from 1915 until its closure in 1994 – and was at its most productive from 1925 to 1974, when it was run by Anglo American.
Decades after it shut down, communities in the area are developing a host of ailments, including substantially high levels of lead in their blood as a result of ingesting dust allegedly contaminated by emissions from the mine smelter and waste dumps.
According to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report titled We Have to be Worried, released on Friday, at least a third of Kabwe’s 76 000-strong population live in lead-contaminated villages, and an estimated half of the children in these communities have elevated blood lead levels that warrant medical treatment.
The report also states that since the closure of the mine in 1994, the area has experienced seasonal flooding and windblown dust from the mine dump. This, coupled with ongoing small-scale mining, has worsened the contamination.
The report also warns that high lead levels, exceeding international standards, remain in the soil and dust around the former mine, particularly in the local villages of Kasanda, Makandanyama, Chowa, Mutwe Wansofu and Makululu in Kabwe.
It says the former mining area still hosts tailings and other waste from the mine and smelter.
CHILDREN AT RISK
“Children in Kabwe are especially at risk because they are more likely to ingest lead dust when playing in the soil. Their brains and bodies are still developing, and they absorb four to five times as much lead as adults,” reads part of the report.
“The consequences for children who are exposed to high levels of lead and are not treated include: reading and learning barriers or disabilities; behavioural problems; impaired growth; anaemia; brain, liver, kidney, nerve and stomach damage; coma and convulsions; and death.
“After prolonged exposure, the effects are irreversible. Lead also increases the risk of miscarriage and can be transmitted through both the placenta and breastmilk.”
The report goes on to say that although the government has made efforts to address lead pollution in the area – including providing medical care to more than 2 800 children under the age of seven, as part of the World Bank-funded Copperbelt Environment Project – it seems to be fighting a losing battle.
It adds: “HRW’s research has found that lead contamination in Kabwe has a disproportionate impact on the poor for at least three reasons: undernourishment increases the amount of lead that the body absorbs; lead dust is a particular hazard in informal settlements; and the water required to maintain grass and reduce dust is expensive for community members.”
In the most affected areas of Kabwe, nearly all the children have blood lead levels (BLLs) of above 20 micrograms per decilitre.
Almost half of the children’s BLLs are higher than 45 micrograms per decilitre – the threshold above which an antidote is required.
The international standard is 5 micrograms per decilitre, which was revised downwards in 2012 after medical evidence indicated a lowering of children’s IQ at levels as low as 5 micrograms per decilitre.
Some of the problems associated with lead poisoning in children, according to the World Health Organisation, range from reduced IQ, behavioural problems and stunted growth to severe anaemia and kidney damage, and in the worst cases can cause brain damage and even death.
Richard Meeran, partner and head of Leigh Day’s international department, said that the firm had been instructed to act on behalf of almost 200 children who had been treated for lead poisoning.
He said the class action would be instituted in South Africa and an application to certify a class action would be filed in the Johannesburg High Court.
The purpose of the action, Meeran added, would be to secure compensation for the victims of lead poisoning. This would include the cost of having an effective medical monitoring system for BLLs entrenched in the community.
According to Meeran, the action will be against Anglo American only and the amount is yet to be determined.
“It is impossible to give a figure for the overall value of the claim at this stage. However, given that there are tens of thousands of victims of lead poisoning, the figure is likely to be very substantial.”
Like Leigh Day, Mbuyisa has been involved in similar claims against international mining companies.
She said Anglo American should compensate the lead poisoning victims and should assist, in both practical and financial ways, to prevent the ongoing lead poisoning of these communities.
“The founders of Anglo American are hailed as trailblazers as they created generational wealth for themselves, their families and investors, yet at the same time we believe that their operations have caused transgenerational poverty and ill health for their workers as well as the environment.
“In this case, we will argue that the environmental damage created has potentially contaminated almost three generations of men, women and children,” she said.
Sibusiso Tshabalala, spokesperson for Anglo American, said the company had a significant controlling interest in the mine from 1927 but exited that investment in 1970, six years after Zambia gained independence.
The government then nationalised the mine.
Tshabalala could not give an exact percentage of the company’s controlling interest.
“Anglo American was one of a number of investors in the company that owned the Kabwe mine. But at all times, it was far from being a majority owner.
“In the early 1970s, the company that owned the mine was nationalised by the government of Zambia and for more than 20 years thereafter, the mine was operated by a state-owned body until its closure in 1994.
“We were concerned to learn of the situation at Kabwe as reported by the press.
“But since nationalisation more than 40 years ago placed these issues under the control of the Zambian government, we are not in a position to comment further about the matter, except to add that we certainly do not believe that Anglo American is in any way responsible for the current situation,” Tshabalala concluded.
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