Bid to clean Africa’s most toxic town

The mine in Kabwe was abandoned a quarter of a century ago. But in this Zambian town, population 223 000, the scars of a century of largely unregulated mining for zinc, lead, silver, vanadium oxide and cadmium are all too obvious.

The skyline is dominated by the 30m slag heap known locally as Black Mountain and the levels of lead and zinc contamination in the soil are so high that Kabwe has earned itself an unwelcome nickname: Africa’s most toxic town.

The high concentrations of lead are of greatest concern, because of its long-term effect on health, which include damage to the brain, kidneys, liver, stomach, nerves and blood cells.

In the most recent study, in July 2014, 196 children aged two to eight were tested by an international nongovernmental organisation, Pure Earth. On average, the children’s blood lead level was 48.3 micrograms per decilitre.
(A decilitre is one tenth of a litre.) Anything about five micrograms per decilitre is considered unhealthy. Above 45 micrograms, urgent medical intervention is required.

That medical intervention is unavailable to most of Kabwe’s residents.

Pure Earth also tested the soil in townships surrounding the abandoned mine. The soil remains highly contaminated — on average more than four times the level considered acceptable by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

These findings are nothing new. Multiple tests, stretching back to the 1970s, have shown that lead contamination in Kabwe is dangerously high. Efforts to clean up the town have been half-hearted and ineffective, and treatment for those affected by lead poisoning is almost non-existent. For example, clinics have run out of lead testing kits.

Removing lead from soil, or at least mitigating its effect, is expensive and difficult work. This is especially true in a poor and dusty town like Kabwe, where many families cannot afford to implement basic mitigation strategies, such as replacing the contaminated soil in their yards with grass, and using water to keep dust out of the air.

It does not help that vehicles travelling along Kabwe’s extensive network of dirt roads are constantly kicking up contaminated dust.

Paving these roads, and decontaminating people’s houses, is crucial to any long-term clean-up strategy. But who is going to pay for all this work, and ensure that it gets done properly?

Responsibility lies, in theory, with the Zambian government, who assumed control of the mine in 1970. And, according to a new Human Rights Watch report, the government has not been totally idle: from 2003 to 2011, Zambia used a World Bank grant to clean the Kabwe Canal, in an effort to reduce recontamination risks.

It also removed mine waste from some residential areas, and planted grass and trees on new topsoil in 3 100 households. It built 11 parks and provided treatment to 2 800 affected children.

But this intervention ended when the World Bank grant ended. In addition, it was never comprehensive enough to solve the problem. For example, families struggled to keep their new grass alive and all but two of the parks, intended as a green lung for the city, were subsequently vandalised.

The World Bank labelled Zambia’s implementation of this grant as “moderately unsatisfactory”. Nonetheless, in 2016 it extended more funds to the government to deal with the problem. These funds have yet to be spent; in fact, the Zambian government has so far failed to announce an implementation partner, or even publish a comprehensive clean-up plan.

This is something of a sore point. The ministry of mines has refused permission to Human Rights Watch to release its new report on the severity of the lead contamination around Kabwe and the inadequacy of the government’s response, describing it as an “attempt to discredit the government”.

“The real threat to the government’s credibility lies in its own indefensible efforts to suppress our findings,” said Joanna Naples-Mitchell, Human Rights Watch’s lead researcher for the report. “Instead of attacking its critics, the Zambian government should articulate a clear plan for living up to its responsibilities in Kabwe.”

British law firm Leigh Day, along with South Africa’s Mbuyisa Moleele Attorneys, is trying a different approach. This week, they announced plans for a class action suit against Anglo American South Africa, on the basis that Anglo American was in charge of the Kabwe mine from 1927 to 1974 and therefore responsible for the lead emissions from it.

“Throughout that period, it knew or ought to have known of the significant risk of lead poisoning to local residents,” said Leigh Day partner Richard Meeran.

Leigh Day was involved in a previous class action against Anglo American and Anglo Gold Ashanti, which won compensation of R500-million for miners suffering from silicosis and silico-tuberculosis, both lung diseases related to dust.

“The purpose of the class action will be to obtain compensation for victims of lead poisoning and to ensure that an effective medical screening and treatment system is funded and implemented for the whole community, especially young children,” said Meeran.

Anglo American said the mine was nationalised more than 40 years ago and “we certainly don’t believe that Anglo American is in any way responsible for the current situation”.

Even if successful, the envisaged class action suit will take years to wind its way through the courts. Until then, there is little hope that Africa’s most toxic town will be cleaned up any time soon.

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