Zambian villagers whose livelihoods were turned upside down by a toxic spill from a copper mine will finally have their day in court.
The villagers succeeded against the odds in a case pitting their claims against a worldwide mining company which denied responsibility for the spill caused by a local Zambian company it controlled. It wasn’t the first claim against the Vedanta company, based in the UK. In January, a factory in Tamil Nadu, India, was ordered closed by the local pollution board for having “irreversibly polluted the groundwater in and around the Thoothukudi district”.
Vedanta was also criticized by human rights and activist groups, including Survival International, Amnesty International and Niyamgiri Surakshya Samiti because of the company’s operations in Orissa, said to threaten the lives of the Dongria Kondh people who populate this region.
In January 2009, thousands of locals formed a human chain around the hill to protest plans to start bauxite mining in the area.
In the Zambian case, four communities charged that a local stream and the Kafue River had become rivers of acid.
Leaked documents seen by the BBC appear to show that Vedanta Resources – through its Zambia-based Konkola Copper Mines (KCM) – spilled sulphuric acid and other toxic chemicals into the water sources.
Konkola denies they failed to maintain critical equipment adequately or that heavy spillages and massive leakages occurred due to degraded equipment and leaking pumps and pipes.
After the spill, soil in the copper belt, once rich and highly productive now produces virtually nothing, observed a visitor. “I used to grow cabbages, potatoes, tomatoes and bananas but now, there’s no future here – only poverty and suffering for everyone because this land is damaged and spoiled,” said Leo Mulenga.
In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court ruled that companies are liable for the commitments, including good corporate citizenship, they make publicly regarding their subsidiaries and their commitments to the communities they serve.
Meanwhile, early this year, the Konkola mines suspended operations at its Nchanga mine following the introduction of a 5 percent import duty on copper concentrates.
“The introduction of a 5 percent import duty has made the smelting of imported concentrates commercially unviable,” the company said.