Anglo American faces a major legal battle over claims that one of its mines in Zambia poisoned 100,000 people including babies, pregnant women and children.
In the latest scandal to rock a top mining company, a class action lawsuit has been filed against the FTSE 100 group in South Africa.
But boss Mark Cutifani has slammed the case as ‘opportunistic and completely misdirected’ – and the company insists it was never responsible for the site.
Pollution from the plant at Kabwe (pictured) has left a deadly legacy on the streets as locals and visitors protect themselves
A lead mine in the Zambian town of Kabwe is alleged to have been under the control of Anglo’s South African arm from the 1920s until 1974, when it was nationalised.
The site, previously known as Broken Hill, was worked between 1904 and 1994. For decades, rocks were dug up and crushed to extract lead but in the process particles of the deadly metal swept over the town, seeping into the ground, homes and bodies.
South African law firm Mbuyisa Moleele Attorneys and London group Leigh Day have launched a class action lawsuit on behalf of more than 100,000 children and mothers in Kabwe.
It is still being reviewed and has not yet been brought to trial, though industry sources say it is likely.
The firms say Anglo had a key role in managing the mine at a time when the worst of the environmental destruction was wreaked.
They claim Anglo knew it was causing health issues but did not do enough to stop the damage.
Around 75 per cent of Kabwe’s population are thought to have significant levels of lead in their blood
The lawsuit aims to set up a long-term programme to test blood lead levels, and for Anglo to shoulder the clean-up costs.
Richard Meeran, partner and head of the international department at Leigh Day, said: ‘An environmental and public health crisis of the magnitude of Kabwe’s would be considered a corporate scandal if it occurred in the UK or US.
‘It also serves as a stark illustration of what happened in the past when large multinational mining companies were effectively given free rein to exploit the resources and people in southern Africa, with tragic human consequences.’
Studies of the area, which has a population of 230,000, show it has concentrations of lead up to 150 times higher than safe limits.
South African law firm Mbuyisa Moleele Attorneys and London group Leigh Day have launched a class action lawsuit
Campaigners from groups including Amnesty International claim it is the world’s ‘most toxic lead mine’.
Kabwe was included in an eight-year World Bank scheme to clean up Zambian mines, and as part of this the Bank’s representative showed local officials the Julia Roberts film Erin Brockovich, about a class action lawsuit against a water company.
Lead poisoning can ruin the nervous system and damage organs including the heart, kidneys and brain.
Children are especially vulnerable, and it is associated with higher rates of miscarriage.
Around 75 per cent of Kabwe’s population are thought to have significant levels of lead in their blood.
Anglo wholly rejects the lawsuit’s claims, saying it was ‘far from being the majority owner’ of Kabwe and that after it was nationalised it was the country’s state-owned mining firm that was responsible for its closure.
Long-time chief executive Cutifani has previously said that the claim is ‘opportunistic and misdirected’.
He steps down as Anglo boss in April to be replaced by strategy director Duncan Wanblad, who will steer the company through the legal battle if it goes to trial.
In a responding affidavit to the case filed by Anglo in August, it blames the Zambian state mining group, ZCCM, and the Zambian government for the problems at the site.
The law firms are due to file another response in February, and a decision on a trial will be made within the coming months.
A source close to the company said Leigh Day’s claims were ‘extremely selective in nature’ and that there was clear evidence that operating standards deteriorated at the mine when ZCCM took over, which is probably when most of the pollution occurred.
In a statement, the company said that it had ‘every sympathy for the people of Kabwe and their plight’.
But it added: ‘Between 1925 to 1974, Anglo American South Africa held a shareholding in the company that operated the mine.
‘Anglo American provided certain services to the mine, but at no stage owned or operated the mine.’
The battle comes as big mining companies’ social responsibility has been thrust under the spotlight after Rio Tinto blew up two 46,000-year-old Aboriginal caves in Australia last year to extend an iron ore mine.
The disaster sparked investor outcry, a boardroom clear- out and an Australian parliamentary inquiry.
Another of Anglo’s peers, BHP, has for years been paying compensation and trying to repair its reputation after a waste dam at an iron ore mine in Brazil burst in 2015, killing 19.
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