Kenyan Activist Wins Landmark Environmental Case Over Lead Poisoning

The Owino Uhuru community of Jomvu, Kenya, has been awarded $1.3 billion Ksh (12 million U.S. dollars) compensation in a landmark case over lead poisoning. The 3000 residents of Jomvu all lived by or worked on, the since defunct, smelting plant, Metal Refinery EPZ Ltd.

The plant opened in 2007 on the border of the Jomvu community. Production at the plant seeped lead fumes into the air, and untreated acid waste was dumped into local streams. By 2014, at least five people had died from these practices, and the company shut down amid growing national pressure and public opposition but left lifelong health issues for many its in wake. In the same year, the Kenyan government found that the health of workers and residents were endangered, and the smelter violated numerous laws, but did not sue the plant.

Without governmental assistance, the legal battle fell to local activist Phyliss Omido, who founded the Centre for Justice, Governance, and Environmental Action. Omido, a former employee of the plant, noticed her infant son and others in the community were beginning to feel unwell and called for testing. At first, Omido says “many people did not believe me and kept telling me what I was saying about lead poisoning was made up.”

Omido persisted and began a legal battle against the smelter in 2016, a process that saw her arrested by the police, forced into hiding and arrested by thugs. Yet Omido is also a highly admired and respected figure, and has received support from the local community, regional politicians, NGO’s, and the UN.

On July 16th, 2020, the environmental court ordered the government and two private investors to pay the $1.3 billion Ksh to the residents of Owino Uhuru for damages related to the smelter. The court also ruled that government agencies responsible for the regulation enforcement at the plant must pay the compensation within ninety days and the site must be cleaned up within four months. Talking about the decision, Omido said “We’re elated. The ruling was very thorough. It will change my people’s lives and improve access to medicines.” Omido’s Centre for Justice, Government, and Environmental Action has also let to the closure of at least 10 toxic waste smelters across Kenya in the last five years.

In 2014, NGO Human Rights Watch visited Owino Uhuru during wider investigations into toxic lead exposures. The community described health problems consistent with lead poisoning, and blood tests taken by the NGO found high levels of lead. Residents also reported that, since the plant had opened, their children had seemed sick. Children are particularly vulnerable to the health problems associated with lead, which is highly toxic and can cause permanent damage to development, the brain, the liver, and the kidney.

This well-deserved victory for Omido and her community is the result of years of a hard-fought campaign for justice. This decision will hopefully make government officials responsible for environmental regulation think twice about putting residents at risk to harmful toxins for financial reasons and pave the way for a new era of environmental activism speaking truth to power.

Katy de la Motte