Anglo American rebuts Zambian lead-poisoning class action claims

By David Whitehouse
Posted on Thursday, 31 March 2022 13:30

REUTERS/Rodrigo Garrido

A filing of evidence this month by lawyers acting for plaintiffs against Anglo American over alleged lead poisoning at Kabwe in Zambia is the final step before a South African court decides whether to allow the class action to proceed.

The claim arises from the contamination of villages in proximity to the Kabwe lead mine, formerly known as Broken Hill, in Zambia. Medical studies over the past 45 years have consistently shown higher than usual levels of lead in a significant proportion of young children in Kabwe. Human Rights Watch has said more than one-third of Kabwe’s population of 76,000 now live in lead-contaminated areas.

The class action was filed in October 2020 at the Gauteng division of South Africa’s high court. It is estimated to represent more than 100,000 people and is being paid for by UK litigation fund Augusta Ventures. Human-rights law firms Mbuyisa Moleele and Leigh Day this month filed evidence in support of the claim.

Anglo American won’t have the chance to refute that evidence before the court decides whether to allow the case to proceed to trial. Lawyers hope that a court decision will be made before the end of the first half of this year.

The filing demonstrates the “inextricable link between Anglo’s operations and the ongoing contamination in Kabwe, supported by world-class expert witnesses and a wealth of evidence,” says Zanele Mbuyisa, partner at the Johannesburg-based law firm Mbuyisa Moleele. “This is in stark contrast to Anglo’s untenable lines of argument, which attempt to pin the blame on anyone but themselves.”

  • Anglo American South Africa (AASA) was a shareholder in the mine between 1925 and nationalisation in 1974.
  • The plaintiffs alleged that AASA operated the mine – a claim that the company rejects.

Anglo American’s response

Anglo American is “concerned about the contamination at Kabwe and any suffering that comes from it,” head of corporate communications James Wyatt-Tilby told The Africa Report. “Contamination is not acceptable anywhere. We have every sympathy for the people of Kabwe and their plight, but we do intend to defend ourselves because we do not believe that we are responsible for the current situation.”

“The mine operator was Zambia Broken Hill Development Company (ZBHDC), so matters relating to the operation of the mine, including employee health, would have been its responsibility. Anglo American provided certain services to the mine, but at no stage owned or operated the mine. It suits Leigh Day to conflate ZBHDC with Anglo American, but it is simply not correct.”

“The mine was nationalised in the early 1970s and was operated by a number of Zambian entities for 20 years to 1994 when the mine itself was closed. The claim fails to take into account this period, as well as the role of a number of parties in the post-closure management of the mine site during the 27+ years since 1994.”

“One aspect of the allegations being made is particularly misleading, namely the assertion that there is a linear correlation between volumes of lead produced over time and contamination. We believe that this assertion is fundamentally flawed, because of the implementation over time of improving technologies to reduce emissions (an issue that certain of the Claimants’ own experts acknowledge), and the apparent subsequent failure to maintain the efficacy of some of those technologies post nationalisation.”

Records held by  Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines (ZCCM), the entity which owned the nationalised mine, “show that there was a significant deterioration of operating standards under its ownership post-1974 – with the collapse and eventual removal of the critical air pollution control devices – and that the period post-1989 ‘most likely represents the worst period of lead pollution, in the history of the Kabwe Mine’, according to ZCCM’s records.”

“Leigh Day is seeking to hold only Anglo American liable for a mine that it itself acknowledge we didn’t own or operate, but it misrepresents the facts and ignores those who did own and operate the mine over time.”

Warning in 1970

The plaintiffs argue that the problem was clear as early as 1970. Soon after arriving in Kabwe in 1969, Dr Ian Lawrence became concerned by the high death rate of children under the age of five living in the vicinity of the mine, according to evidence filed with the court. He took around 500 blood samples from children under the age of five attending the township clinic in 1969-70.

  • Many had levels of lead high enough to cause serious brain damage and death.
  • Lawrence de­tailed these findings in a report to the Kabwe mine’s chief medical officer in 1970, concluding that the source of the lead poisoning was primarily dust from the plant.
  • This led to Anglo American commissioning a report by the University of Manchester which confirmed the findings, the evidence submitted to court shows.
  • The University of Manchester report made recommendations for reductions in lead contamination that were considered by Anglo American but not imple­mented on the grounds of cost, the submitted evidence claims.

 

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