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In a historic ruling 3,000 Kenyans are compensated for lead poisoning
Dozens of people who fell ill because of toxic fumes and waste from a lead refinery on the outskirts of Mombasa have found justice in court.
12 million dollars. This is the total amount of compensation that the Kenyan government and local companies have to pay the 3,000 residents of Owino Uhuru, a slum on the outskirts of the city of Mombasa. For years, its people have suffered the harmful effects of pollution from a nearby lead refinery. Water, air and soil contamination rose past standard safety levels soon after its construction, and people began to get sick. Now, after years of staunch efforts from local activists, a court has finally ruled in favour of justice.
Mombasa’s lead batteries
Indian company Metal Refinery EPZ came to Owino Uhuru in 2007. It incinerated car batteries to extract lead, which it then sold. Phyllis Omido, a young lawyer from the local area, was hired by the company to oversee relations with the community. One of her first tasks was to draft a report on the plant’s environmental impact.
A few months later, Omido’s son fell ill. Doctors found lead in his blood, probably passed on to him through his mother’s milk. Meanwhile, the lawyer had been collecting evidence for her report, and began to realise that there was something wrong with the refinery’s activity. Toxic materials were being dumped in rivers, the same ones locals used to bathe. Black smoke poured out of the refinery’s chimneys at night, when visibility was lower. The plant operated in violations of Kenya’s environmental regulations. These findings, in addition to her son’s illness, led Omido to resign and combat the Indian company’s malpractice instead.
She founded an independent group, the Center for Justice, Governance and Environmental Action. Through it, she worked to ensure that the tests carried out on her son were also conducted on slum residents. Dozens of people were found to have lead levels in their blood far exceeding what could be considered safe. To date, six deaths have been linked directly to pollution from the refinery. However, according to Omido the real number is closer to 100. Additionally, animals like chickens and fish have also died, to the point that eating locally-sourced animals was banned.
A historic ruling for Kenyans
The battle was ferocious in its early days. A member of the Kenyan government was among the owners of Metal Refinery EPZ, and the government also played a major role in establishing the plant in Owino Uhuru. Eventually, things looked like they might be improving and the factory was closed down in 2014. But the damage had been already done, with the area having already been contaminated and people suffering from health problems.
Activists led by Omido kept fighting. In 2015, the lawyer – nicknamed “the African Erin Brockovich” – won the most prestigious international award recognising environmental defenders, the Goldman Environmental Prize. Meanwhile, legal action against the government and the company pressed on. In 2016, a class-action lawsuit was brought to demonstrate the link between battery incineration and pollution levels in the area. In 2018, hearings began at the Mombasa Law Courts.
And recently, the happy ending. In a historic ruling, the court awarded 12 million dollars to the people of Owino Uhuru, to be transferred to them within 90 days. It also ruled that the area must be decontaminated.
“We were very scrupulous with our strategy and carefully avoided allowing loopholes to weaken our cause”, Tom Bicko Ooko, Project Officer at the Center for Justice, Governance and Environmental Action, told us. “We hired an expert to conduct scientific testing of the soil, water and environment. We carried out medical tests on residents and animals to show that they’d been poisoned. We employed a good legal team that left no stone unturned at the hearings and collected solid evidence supporting our requests. Finally, we developed a security protocol for our witnesses to ensure they were protected from the many threats received”.
While justice has been served, the battle isn’t over. Blanket testing has to continue to save the victims of pollution before the area is properly decontaminated. “Owino Uhuru still constitutes a great risk for its inhabitants. It takes several years for lead levels to fall so fields, streams, the roofs and walls of houses, and the entire surrounding environment still contain heavy metal deposits to this day. This means that the health of residents, animals and plants keeps deteriorating,” Bicko Ooko continues. “The soil can no longer support subsistence agriculture because of the pollution, and medical costs for lead poisoning treatment are too high for residents, who are very poor”.
Lead pollution in other areas of Kenya
What happened in the Owino Uhuru slum isn’t an exception to the rule. There are many similar stories that have played out in other areas of Kenya and in the rest of Africa. According to data from the Lead Recycling Africa Project, 1.2 billion tonnes of batteries are processed in Africa each year, extracting an amount of lead equivalent to 8 per cent of global production.
The Center for Justice, Governance and Environmental Action has undertaken several investigations of the issue. “Companies have a widespread tendency to generate profits at the expense of the environment and innocent citizens,” Bicko Ooko explains. “In Kenya alone, we’ve shut down 17 foundries that were polluting the environment, in addition to the Owino Uhuru refinery. In Nigeria, we worked on a lead poisoning case in Zamfara state which killed over 150 residents in just three months”.
Many plants, however, are still operational. This endangers the health of local inhabitants as well as workers, who often find themselves working using their bare hands and without protective equipment because of ruthless profit-seekers. However, the ruling in Mombasa could effect positive change by becoming an important precedent and a deterrent to systemic environmental abuse in Africa.
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