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For years, a recycling plant for waste batteries in a suburb of Mombasa has contaminated the area with lead. The permanent exposure to lead has sickened many residents in the village of Owino Uhuru, and several hundred people have died from lead poisoning. Now the Kenyan environmental court has ordered the owners of the factory and the Kenyan government to pay large compensation: the approximately 3,000 inhabitants of the poor settlement are to receive more than ten million euros, reports “Spiegel Online”.

The court also ordered the government to clean up the lead-contaminated factory site and adjacent settlement. If the government does not comply with this requirement, it will have to pay a further eur 7 million in fines.

The verdict is a great victory for Kenyan environmental activist Phyllis Omido: “Finally we are getting justice,” she said in an interview with “Spiegel Online”. The trial she initiated has been ongoing since 2016.

Deadly business with old batteries

Lead extraction from old car batteries is a widespread business in Africa. According to Spiegel Online, about 1.2 million tons of lead-acid batteries are recycled in African countries every year. The coveted raw material is back on the world market, a large part of which is exported to the EU – often via detours and intermediaries.

The health and environmental conditions in the recycling plants are disastrous. People often disassemble the old batteries with bare hands and without protective clothing. Toxic lead dust ends up on the skin, in the air and in the groundwater. Disease rates are dramatically high. It is not only the workers who are affected, but also their families. Many die as a result of poisoning.

Phyllis Omido has been fighting this deadly business for years. In 2009, a few months after the opening of the battery recycling plant, her young son became seriously ill. Doctors find high levels of lead in his blood. The child is highly poisoned – just like many other people in the village of Owino Uhuru. Phyllis Omido investigates and finds that cases in the region have been increasing since the opening of the recycling plant. It informs the villagers of the deadly danger posed by the neighbouring factory. It has further blood tests carried out on local residents, documents poisoning and deaths and calls for protests against the factory operators.

The plant ceased operations in 2014, but Omido’s fight continues. In 2016, with her organization Center for Justice, Governance and Environmental Action, she filed a class-action lawsuit against the owners of the factory on behalf of the residents of Owino Uhuru. The lawsuit also targets several government agencies, including the Kenyan Ministry of Health and the Environment. They had tolerated the highly toxic lead melt in the poor quarter for years.

4,000 euros for affected villagers

The fact that the Kenyan environmental court has ordered factory operators and the government to pay large compensation and to rehabilitate the site sets a precedent that could help many communities in Kenya in the fight against pollution from industrial plants, according to Spiegel Online.

The dead inhabitants of the rural settlement of Owino Uhuru do not bring back the verdict, but it can greatly improve the lives of many people. The region is still contaminated with lead and many still suffer from severe poisoning. Until now, they could not afford to visit doctors, because the poor settlement often lacks the essentials for survival. Now every person concerned in the municipality is to be compensated with around 4000 euros. “Now everyone can be treated and hopefully get healthy,” Phyllis Omido says of Mirror Online. But with all her joy, the fighter Omido remains realistic: there will be still a long way to go before the people of Owino Uhuru receive the money awarded. Company owners and the Kenyan state could still appeal the ruling.