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Class action suit lodged against Anglo American over alleged toxic lead legacy in Zambia

The Anglo American head office in Johannesburg. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sharon Seretlo)

Mbuyisa Moleele Attorneys and UK-based law firm Leigh Day have filed a class action suit against Anglo American on behalf of a class of over 100,000 people in the Kabwe District of Zambia who are believed to have been poisoned by lead. The suit alleges that much of this toxic legacy stems from the five decades between 1924 and 1975 when the Kabwe lead mine was at least a partially owned Anglo asset. 

The class action suit was filed in the Gauteng Division of the High Court of South Africa against Anglo American South Africa Limited. It is the latest in a spate of suits in recent years that aim to hold the mining industry accountable for “legacy issues” and misdeeds from the past and comes at a time of heightened shareholder awareness around ESGs – environmental, social and governance issues.

“The claimants – principally young children – are suffering from alarming levels of lead poisoning which, depending on various factors including the blood lead level (BLL), causes a range of significant conditions, from psychological, intellectual and behavioural damage to serious and permanent physical damage to their bodily organs, neurological systems and fertility,” Mbuyisa Moleele Attorneys and Leigh Day said in a statement. 

“In pregnant women, lead they ingested as children is absorbed into their bones and released during pregnancy. Women are also exposed to lead during pregnancy from the surrounding environment. Lead is known to cross the placenta, resulting in the unborn child being subjected to the same concentration of lead as the mother. Not only can the baby’s health be damaged, lead causes pregnant women to have a higher risk of pre-eclampsia; gestational hypertension and miscarriage,” the law firms said.

So this is very nasty stuff and women and children are bearing the brunt. 

The suit alleges that generations of children have been poisoned by widespread lead contamination from the Kabwe mine in the soil, dust and water in the area. The smelter, ore processing operations and the tailings dam are the main sources of the lead. 

“The BLLs of the vast majority of children in Kabwe exceed the BLL limit of 5 micrograms per decilitre set by the US Centre for Disease Control. A substantial proportion of the children have BLLs in excess of 45 ug/dl, the limit at which medical treatment is required,” the law firms said. 

Measurable levels of toxicity in children certainly seem like solid ground from which to launch a class action. 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says on its web site that … “Exposure to lead-contaminated soil and dust resulting from battery recycling and mining has caused mass lead poisoning and multiple deaths in young children in Nigeria, Senegal and other countries”.

“WHO has identified lead as 1 of 10 chemicals of major public health concern,” it says. 

The Kabwe mine, located in central Zambia north of Lusaka, was an Anglo American asset from 1925 to 1974 and was one of the world’s most productive lead mines in its day. It was then transferred to ZCCM, a state-owned Zambian mining company as part of Kenneth Kuanda’s nationalisation drive.

“According to Anglo’s records approximately two-thirds of the lead was produced during that period,” Richard Meeran, head of the International Department at Leigh Day, told Business Maverick. So the allegation is that Anglo is responsible for two-thirds of the lead deposited into the environment.  

“They had responsibility during the period when it was an Anglo mine. During that period, a lot of lead was discharged into the environment in circumstances when there were inadequate measures to control lead emissions. The mine was aware of this and the hazardous nature of lead to the communities and the risk it presented. And there was no cleanup either or any monitoring of the environment,” he said. 

When it emerged publicly in August last year that the class action was being put together, Anglo American said at the time that it was never the majority owner in the asset. 

 “Anglo American was one of a number of investors in the company that owned the Kabwe mine. Anglo American was, however, at all times, 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,” the company said. 

“We were concerned to learn of the situation at Kabwe as reported by the press, but since the nationalisation more than 40 years ago effectively placed these issues under the control of the Zambian government, we are not in a position to comment further about the matter, but we certainly don’t believe that Anglo American is in any way responsible for the current situation.”

The suit alleges that the substantial emissions of lead into the local environment “were due to deficiencies in the design and systems of operation and control of lead, which Anglo failed to ensure were rectified”.

The class action will seek compensation for the victims of lead poisoning. It also aims to have blood lead screening measures established for children and pregnant women in Kabwe and to have the environment in the area cleaned up. 

There have been a number of similar suits in recent years aimed at rectifying some of the sinister legacies of the mining sector. The R5-billion silicosis settlement spearheaded against the gold mining sector to compensate miners who contracted the incurable disease from inhaling dust from gold-bearing rocks is one. Leigh Day has represented South African asbestos miners, workers in KZN who suffered mercury poisoning and has also settled silicosis claims for gold miners. 

In Zambia, Leigh Day represents 2,577 villagers who are taking action against UK based Vedanta Resources plc (Vedanta) and its Zambian subsidiary Konkola Copper Mines (KCM) as a result of damage to their land and water from copper mining effluent.

Anglo American, like most mining companies these days, has lately been brandishing its ESG credentials. Its CEO Mark Cutifani recently said that the mining industry has been seeking guidance from faith leaders, including the Vatican, on social and community issues. This latest suit may serve as a test to its commitment on this front. DM/BM



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