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Zambians take UK mining giant to court over toxic leaks

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Water from a borehole drilled by British mining company KCM at Shimulala village, Zambia

A major UK-based mining company operating in Zambia has been polluting the drinking water in the African nation to catastrophic levels, prompting legal action in British courts by lawyers representing hundreds of Zambian villagers affected by toxic leaks.

London-based Leigh Day law firm issued proceedings in the high court of the British capital on behalf of 1,800 Zambians that claim to have been suffering from the massive pollution released by  Vedanta Resources’ giant mine in Zambia’s Copperbelt region, British daily Guardian reported on Saturday.

The report cites leaked documents and a confidential internal report commissioned by Canadian pollution control experts showing that Vedanta subsidiary KCM has been spilling sulfuric acid and other toxic chemicals into rivers, streams, and underground aquifers used for drinking water near Zambia’s mining town of Chingola.

The result, according to the people living in four villages near the huge 12-square-mile mine, “is stomach pains and illnesses, devastated crops, loss of earnings and permanent injuries,” the report said.

 “The case could take three years to resolve,” said Leigh Day’s senior partner Martyn Day, who recently returned from Zambia, where a legal team has been taking witness statements from people living near the rivers and the facilities operated by the British company.

The claims by Zambian villagers living near one of Africa’s largest copper mines are supported by a leaked letter from a KCM physician confirming that water collected for testing from Shimulala village in 2011 was unfit for human consumption.

“The water is acidic and the copper and iron levels exceed permitted levels,” the letter further stated. “The impurities … can cause cancer in the bloodstream and unhealthy conditions in internal organs. The people in that village should be advised to stop using the same water.”

A Vedanta spokesman said: “All Vedanta’s operating subsidiaries take the health of their employees, the well-being of surrounding communities and the environment very seriously. Our subsidiaries are committed to ensuring they operate in a safe and sustainable way.”

“The company has very good plans on paper that have not materialized on the ground for the last 10 years,” said a scientist who worked with KCM for over 15 years. “It is absolutely clear that there is a massive problem. Because the river Kafue feeds into the Zambezi River, which provides drinking water for much of Zambia, the pollution could affect hundreds of thousands of people downstream."

“A disaster is very likely,” he further underlined. “It has the potential of affecting people hundreds of miles away. Water supplies could be damaged and aquatic life would die.”

Meanwhile, a leaked report by the Canadian engineering company SNC-Lavalin, which was employed in 2010 to advise Vedanta/KCM on how to control the persisting pollution, refers to “constant contamination” of streams by solids, dissolved copper, and acids being spilled by the company.


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