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Anglo to defend class action suit over lead poisoning in Zambia

Saying it was a minority shareholder and the mine was nationalised in 1970.
Anglo is likely to argue various points, including whether a South African rather than a Zambian court is the right forum. Image: Chris Ratcliffe, Bloomberg

Anglo American is facing a class action suit brought by SA law firm Mbuyisa Moleele and UK-based human rights firm Leigh Day.

The suit relates to claims of lead poisoning as a result of mining in the Kabwe district of Zambia, which is claimed to have impacted the health of 100 000-plus Zambians.

The court filings say soil lead levels in the area are as much as 10 times the recommended safety levels. The Kabwe lead mine (formerly known as Broken Hill) was mined between 1904 and 1994 and is claimed to have been under Anglo American SA control between 1925 and 1974.

In a statement, the law firms say they are seeking compensation “for lead poisoning of these children and for women under 50 who have been poisoned who have, or may become pregnant, in the future”.

Compensation is also being sought for the cost of remediating homes in the area to make it safe for future generations, and for future blood lead screening.

Medical studies conducted over the past 45 years have consistently shown massive levels of lead in a significant proportion of young children in Kabwe. Generations of children have been affected, say the claimants.

It was decided to file the case in SA, where “the victims will benefit from South African class action procedure, attorneys and counsel experienced in running complex class action litigation against multinationals”.

This is a reference to the R5 billion class-action settlement reached in 2018 between six gold mines and thousands of former gold miners suffering from silicosis and tuberculosis as a result of their work.

The mines involved were African Rainbow Minerals, Anglo American SA, AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields, Harmony Gold Mining Company and Sibanye-Stillwater.

Read:

This latest case involving lead poisoning in Zambia singles out Anglo American SA.

‘Naturally concerned’

Anglo American has vowed to defend the action. “A certification application has been filed in South Africa against Anglo American in relation to contamination at Kabwe in Zambia dating back some 50 years and more. We are naturally concerned about the situation at Kabwe and any suffering that comes from it. Contamination is just not acceptable anywhere,” says Anglo in a statement.

“These allegations stretch back to early last century and Anglo American’s involvement in the Kabwe operation ended in 1974. Prior to that, Anglo American held minority interests in the company that owned and operated the Kabwe mine and provided various services to the mine, but we were not the operator of the mine or the majority owner. The Kabwe mine was then nationalised and operated by the state for 20+ years until it was closed down in 1994.

“There is, therefore, a complex set of facts, but we intend to defend our position as we don’t believe that Anglo American is responsible for the current situation.

“That doesn’t help the people of Kabwe – we realise that – and of course, we have every sympathy with their plight.”

Augusta Ventures, one of the UK’s largest litigation funding organisations, is covering experts’ fees and a substantial proportion of the legal costs for the claimants.

This is likely to be a complicated case, where the first hurdle to overcome is the right of the claimants to be recognised as a class – which could take 12-18 months.

Anglo has yet to file its court reply, but will likely argue several technical points – such as whether a South African rather than a Zambian court is the right forum for a complaint of this nature. It is also likely to argue that as a minority shareholder in the mine, it never had operating control, and that the Zambian government has acknowledged its responsibility for the pollution problem. The mine was nationalised in 1970, and the Zambian government received World Bank and other funding to address mine-related pollution. In 1994, the site was placed under care and maintenance by the national mining company, Zambian Consolidated Copper Mines (ZCCM).

Zambian government

In a 2019 report on lead contamination in Kabwe, Human Rights Watch says the Zambian government should “acknowledge full responsibility for remedying the ongoing harms caused by the now-defunct Kabwe mine”.

Claims of lead poisoning date back to 1916, and in 1936 miners asked for compensation for workers rendered unable to work due to lead fumes.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency considers lead a hazard in children’s play areas at or above 400mg/kg. The Copperbelt Environment Project found the soil in Kabwe at levels in excess of 900mg/kg, and above 2 000mg/kg in much of the affected mining area.

Activity continues at the mine

In 2017 it was announced that Jubilee Platinum, in a joint venture with the BMR Group, would process tailings at the old Kabwe mine.

“Past activities at the Kabwe mine have left widespread pollution of the local area, including waterways. ZCCM [has] accepted full responsibility for past pollution and the need to rehabilitate the area,” says the BMR website.

“BMR is insulated from any claims or actions arising from the past and is only responsible for ensuring that its own operations are conducted so as to avoid any further pollution in accordance with current regulations.

“BMR is conducting an environmental impact assessment process for submission to the Zambian Environmental Management Agency in respect of its rehabilitation plans.”

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