Metal Refinery (EPZ) lawsuit (re lead pollution in Kenya)
In 2016, a local NGO brought a class action lawsuit against Metal Refinery (EPZ) on behalf of the Owino Uhuru community in Kenya, alleging lead contamination and poisoning resulting from their recycling of lead-acid batteries. In July 2020, the Kenya Environment and Land Court ruled in favour of the community, ordering the government and Refinery Metals to pay Kshs. 1.3 billion in damages and to clean up the environmental damage.
In 2007, the Metal Refinery (EPZ) opened a smelting plant, which recycled used lead-acid batteries in Owino Uhuru. Complaints emerged from the local community following the opening of the plant, alleging that the company was poisoning the environment as a result of poor waste management. Claimants allege that an increasing number of people had been affected by diverse health and environmental impacts, including deaths from lead poisoning and respiratory diseases, since the opening of the plant. Soil tests showed that lead levels increased almost tenfold between 2008 and 2009, when the plant became operational. The smelter ceased operations in 2014, following community pressure and campaigning by the CJGEA.
In 2016, the Centre for Justice Governance and Environmental Action (CJGEA) brought a class action lawsuit on behalf of the Owino Uhuru community in a Kenyan Environment and Land Court in relation to lead contamination and poisoning.
The class action seeks 1.6bn Kenyan shillings (around US$ 15m) in compensation, as well as clean-up of contaminated land. The lawsuit challenges the responsibility of eight different state and non-state actors in relation to the protection of the right to a clean and healthy environment, among others.
Six of the eight respondents in the lawsuit, which include the attorney general, governmental bodies, and environmental and health regulatory authorities, were notified of the claim in 2016. However, Metal Refinery EPZ LTD (the smelter plant) and Penguin Paper and Book Company (the company which housed the smelter) evaded the claimants’ notices for a year. On 26 January 2017, the claimants published the notice of claim against the two companies in a newspaper advertisement which was released on 2 February 2017. The Environment and Land Court ordered both parties’ lawyers to come forward in April 2018, and opened court proceedings on 15 and 16 May 2018. The case is ongoing, and hearings will continue on 28 and 29 November 2018.
After the lawsuit was made public, workers and environmental activists of the CJGEA allegedly started receiving threats, being harassed, and being trailed. In 2014, 2017 and 2018, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment called for the Kenyan government to protect four environmental human rights defenders and members of the CJGEA who had been assaulted and subjected to death threats. On 6 March 2017, they met with the Kenyan Director of Public Prosecutions, and on 6 April 2017, the police started interviewing the CJGEA members. Phyllis Omido, who shed light on the health consequences of the factory’s activities and founded the CJGEA, still faced death threats in 2018 as a result of bringing the case.
In July 2020, the Honorable Justice Anne Omollo delivered the judgment for the class action suit. The Court held that the Owinouhuru commuity shall receive Kshs. 1.3 billion (12,101,876.80 USD) in damages and that the government and Refinery Metals have four months to clean up the environmental damage.
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- Lead victims from Owino Uhuru slum still seeking justice", The Star, 10 Aug 2018
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- “The woman risking her life to save a village from lead poisoning”, CNN, 24 Apr 2018
- “Kenya lead victims denied their day in Mombasa court”, DW, 19 Mar 2018
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-“On the frontlines of the fight for a healthy planet”,UN Environment, 10 Oct 2017
-Metal Refinery (EPZ) limited, Centre for Justice Governance and Environmental Action, 14 Mar 2017
-"Statement on Human Rights Violations by Metal Refineries (EPZ) Limited and Affiliate Entities on Communities Living in Uhuru Owino", Kenya Human Rights Commission, 29 Apr 2015