September 10, 2020: Villagers in Kenya were awarded compensation of Ksh1.3 billion ($12 million) in July after a four-year court battle against lead battery recycler Metal Refinery EPZ Ltd, which began recycling ULABs near the village of Owino Uhuru in 2007.
The Environment Court of Mombasa on July 16 made the award and ordered the government and the MRL to clean up the soil around the facility and pay up within four months or the fine could double.
Between 2008 and 2009, villagers started complaining of sickness and even deaths that they said were caused by the improper operations at the factory. Lead levels in soil tests increased 10-fold in the period, a report by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre said.
A petition was raised following a visit by the public health department to the site in February 2009, whose report painted a woeful picture of conditions in the factory, including waste matter piling up in rooms for up to two years, insufficient protective clothing for workers and no blood checks on them, dirty and leaking facilities and no approved remedial plan in place.
The factory was closed and ordered to make changes and testing was carried out for lead blood levels, but it was met with resistance from people who were worried they would lose their jobs.
“Soil, water and air lead levels were not tested by the public health department due to lack of resources,” the public petition to the Kenyan parliament said.
Despite the report’s findings, the factory was not permanently closed until 2014, after the NGO Human Rights Watch visited the village as part of a series of investigations into lead exposure in other countries.
The fight was also taken up by villager Phyliss Omido, who founded the Centre for Justice, Governance, and Environmental Action. She had worked at the plant, and called for testing when she noticed that her infant son and others were beginning to feel unwell.
The smelter finally closed in March 2014 amid public opposition but not before leaving a legacy of contamination and lifelong health effects, said Human Rights Watch.
“The Kenyan government found the smelter violated numerous laws, endangering the health of workers and residents, but did little to remedy the situation.”
Omido began her legal action in 2016, despite threats and being forced into hiding, said the Organization for World Peace, one of a growing number of NGOs coming out to support her.
The matter was finally put to rest on July 16.
The factory was one of several smelters that had been hastily built in Kenya after 2013 in an effort to avoid a tax imposed on the export of scrap batteries, according to the petition.
“In the last two years, there has been a mushrooming of scrap lead acid battery smelters in Kenya, who are apparently avoiding the imposition of a 20% suspended duty on the export of scrap lead acid batteries,” it said.
“They are now either removing the plastic covers of the scrap battery so that their exports cannot be defined as scrap batteries under the tariff. They are also setting up crude lead smelters to obtain raw blocks of lead for export and avoid the duty. This has also resulted in the growth of scrap dealers who crudely smelt lead for export avoiding the duty.”
The Owino Uhuru community was also awarded legal costs.