A class action lawsuit has been filed against the mining company Anglo American over its alleged failure to prevent widespread toxic lead pollution in the Zambian town of Kabwe, according to the Guardian (UK).

The town hosted one of the world’s biggest lead mines for many decades and scientists have reported “alarming” levels of lead in people’s blood.

Kabwe Dumpsite


Makanday looks at the 2014 story by the Bulletin and Record Magazine.

Original story in PDF: Kabwe, who should have cleaned the killer mess, October 2014

As might be expected there is claim and counterclaim about where responsibility lies. In other words, confusion, and avoidance too.

Anglo merely said in response to questions that they “are concerned to learn of the situation at Kabwe”. They refused to be drawn into further debate about environmental liabilities.

In a statement they said: “Since the nationalisation almost 40 years ago, (we) effectively took these issues into Government hands. 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”.

They added: “Anglo American was one of a number of investors in the company that owned the Kabwe mine. However, Anglo American was at all times far from being a majority owner.”

They referred to “the current situation”, but experts spoken to point out that the issue is not about current environmental liabilities. Anglo American operated the mine for 78 years. “So, they damaged the environment for that long.

And ZCCM they had a stake from 1982 to 1994 - 12 years - so who bears the major blame? Asked Delux Chilumbu, former senior mining engineer at the Ministry of Mines, and a mining consultant.

Thee mine ownership record is as follows:

  • 1904 – 1982: The Rhodesia Broken Hill Development Company (Owned first by the Oppenheimer Corporation, which later founded Anglo American).
  • 1982 – 1994: ZCCM, Kabwe Division, with Anglo American owning 30% shares through its subsidiary, Zambia Copper Investments (ZCI).
  • Some key assets of Kabwe Division were successfully negotiated for in a Management Buy-Out (MBO) by Kabwe Power and Metal Limited (KPML). _ e acquisition included tailings dams, slag dumps and metallurgical facilities. KPML was unsuccessful in its business venture. Ownership of the assets remained with ZCCM.
  • In 1999 Sable Zinc Kabwe Limited (SZK) was formed and acquired the Kabwe Division Leach Plant and some of the mine tailings dumps from ZCCM.
  • In 2006 SZK obtained approval to convert the zinc circuits to a copper circuit to produce copper cathodes through solvent extraction and electro winning.
  • The mine’s current owners are Berkeley Mineral Resources of London (The Zambia Environmental Management Agency has given Berkley clearance to start reprocessing the dumpsite).

During its working lifespan the mine produced in excess of 800,000 tons of lead and 1.8 million tons of zinc. The Mining Industry Year Book reports that in 1964 lead fetched an average price of £ 118 per ton, on the London Metal Exchange, where Zambia’s mineral exports are sold, “ They (Anglo) were making money for 78 years and if you compute how much their production was over the years, it is quite huge,” Chilumbu claims.

A local organisation called Citizens for Better Environment, claimed in 2009 that Anglo was supposed to pay US $28 million to clean up the lead problem in Kabwe. This was not done and in 2002, government borrowed US$50 million from the World Bank for creation of the creation of the Copperbelt Environment Project (CEP) to clean up the environmental impacts after Anglo and others withdrew their investment from Zambia.

Part of that loan was to be used for cleaning up the lead and zinc pollution in Kabwe, where so many people were reported to have suffered from lead poisoning from the mining operation.

However, a source familiar with both ZCCM and CEP operations said the project was not properly executed due to bureaucratic procedures within government. He pointed out that 1989 to 1991 were poor periods for ZCCM.

“They had run out of money, and health and safety standards had to be set aside,” he said.

But why did government, through ZCCM, accept full responsibility for past pollution as well as rehabilitation of the area? Therein lies the problem, say environment and mineral watchers.

They blame the World Bank, who were advisers to government on privatisation, of “supporting bad practices”. The bank, they say, should have advised government to compel former owners of the mine to clean up the environmental mess that their business had caused.

The US$ 50 million loan, which would have to be paid back of course, was for repairing environmental damage on the Copperbelt and Kabwe combined. No effort was made to seek recompense from the former owners.

The World Bank had not responded to an emailed inquiry sent to its Washington headquarters.

At the time the mine closed, Valentine Kay Musakanya, who started the Kabwe Environmental Rehabilitation Foundation (KERF), said his organisation was trying to do something about Kabwe’s lead pollution. He said half the children who were playing in the dust tested positive for varying degrees of lead poisoning.

“As a matter of record, lead levels were very high, said Musakanya. “At the time I left ZCCM, it was in very difficult conditions and also its communication policies were very restrictive. As KERF, we tackled the issue of lead poisoning through the aspect of communication. We had to make people aware that there was a concern but it was manageable.”

It is difficult to track down how the US$50 million loan was used. Efforts to do so have not yielded much as ZCCM–IH chose to remain quiet on the matter. Some World Bank reports rated the cleanup project as “moderately satisfactory”.

A 2011 report into the CEP said all contractual obligations were completed, except for one site where it was recommended by the independent advisor that the obligation should not be implemented due to 90% of the pollution problem still being caused by Konkola Copper Mine (KCM).

According to the second quarter 2002 edition of Link, magazine of Friends of the Earth International, in the ‘later 1990s’ mining companies, anxious about revelations of the environmental damage and human rights issues surrounding mining, formed the Global Mining Initiative. Anglo American was listed as one of the initial financial supporters of the group.

According to the article, this group was said to exist to promote mining as a sustainable industry and to counter the arguments of environmental and human rights organisations. Such groups were said to have refused to work with the Anglo, saying “it lacked credibility or legitimacy and accusing it of greenwash”.

Criticism of Anglo’s copper mining activities in Zambia is well documented. Human rights groups claim Anglo’s actions are in violation of OECD guidelines for multinational enterprises.

They say that when Zambia’s copper mines were privatised, Anglo obtained secret agreements on tax, royalty payments, repatriation of profits and non-liability for past and future pollution.

If that is true, then it brings the government squarely into the picture as failing to face up to repairing the poisonous damage.

Canal for carrying toxic waste from the old mine

Efforts to clean up the pollution left by 88 years of Anglo’s mining activities are not entirely successful. ZCCM, who took over the Kabwe mine in 1982, began to lose its early reputation for a serious commitment to clean up lead poisoning.

During the last visit to Kabwe in 2014, the writer met a group of Kabwe veterans, former miners and lead treatment supporters who confirmed that “lead poisoning is still a very serious health problem”.

Thompson Charles Kadango, one of the treatment supporters, said when some foreign doctors visited the area in August 2014, most of the children who were randomly tested were found with very high lead levels.

“We tested 64 and out of that number 42 were found with high lead levels.”

The Copperbelt University lecturer, Cuthbert Makondo who in February 2014 collected surface and sub-surface soil samples from three areas discovered high concentrations of lead – “above safe levels” -- in soils.

The areas targeted were Kasanda (windward side of the tailing dams), along the canal (leeward side of the tailing dams) and Makululu, northeast of the mine plant.

The situation is compounded by artisanal mining activities within the tailing dumpsite. One example is that of Obbryan Ng’andu, a stone crusher, and his colleagues.

In blistering Kabwe sunshine, he emerged from the trenches where he has been working all day. The day was not good as no customers were coming to buy his crushed stones. He says this is not unusual, days or weeks sometimes pass without any customers, but on a good day a wheelbarrow of stones fetches K3.

Despite the drawbacks and a risk of lead poisoning, 35-year-old Ng’andu is not ready to give up his job. The old lead mining trenches offer him an income to feed his wife and two children.

He and several others have been working here inhaling lead contaminated dust every day. They do so because they have no other income with which to feed their families.

“Lead can be dangerous my brother, that we know for sure, but what else can we do?” He pauses as if seeking an answer from the writer. “This is our only source of income. If we don’t do this, what will our children eat?”

The ditch where Ng’andu collects stones, is up to 8 metres deep, it is a visible sign of environmental damage caused by 100 years of mining.

But it is lead poisoning - the “silent killer” - which is the major concern for poor residents who feel that suggested interventions are way beyond their means.

“We were told that for us to bring the levels down, our children must not play in the dust and that they must be kept clean,” explained Mr Kadango, the lead treatment supporter. “Well, it is difficult because you can’t prevent children from playing. We were also advised to grow grass in our yards but it (grass) needs water. We (have to) pay for this water but we have no money to do so.”

It seems there is no escape route from lead poisoning for Ng’andu and others in Kabwe. He previously worked for a named company within the vicinity of the mine area but quit his job because he became constantly sick from suspected lead poisoning. Working at the furnace and inhaling the smoke and dust from there caused him to go for two or three days withoutanswering the call of nature.

He added that within a short time he would become lethargic, lose a lot of weight and eventually unable to walk. His once enthusiastic nature has been replaced by a deathly somberness as he toils within the toxic landscape.

When breathed in lead affects the blood stream and attacks the central nervous system the immediate health effect, especially in children, is neurological, says one of the senior doctors who worked at Kabwe Mine Hospital run by ZCCM.

“The problem was quite severe when the mine was operating. Most miners brought to the hospital were because of lead,” he said. “Lead poisoning affects the nervous system, the joints and when left unchecked can cause severe health problems.”

The mine closed in 1994. Kabwe sits sleepily at the foot of openings in the earth and the toxicity left by a century of mining. Efforts to transform the town into an agricultural hub have not been without challenges. Poverty has increased significantly, making it harder for residents to challenge the authorities over their plight. They continue to live in an area of environmental crisis caused by a century of mining.


Lead poisoning, for the most part, is asymptomatic. The vast majority of cases, therefore, go undiagnosed and untreated.

Young children have a higher risk for exposure because they have frequent hand-to-mouth activity, and they absorb lead more easily than do adults.

Very high lead levels in children can cause severe neurologic problems such as coma, convulsion, and even death, although such levels are now rare in the United States.

Lower levels cause adverse affects on the central nervous system, kidney, and hematopoietic system.

Blood lead levels as low as 10 micrograms per deciliter (μg/dL), which do not cause distinctive symptoms, are associated with decreased intelligence and impaired neurobehavioral development.

Many other effects begin at these low blood lead levels, including decreased stature or growth, decreased hearing acuity, and decreased ability to maintain a steady posture or growth.

Source: Centres for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC)

The story was first published by the Bulletin and Record Magazine in October 2014