January 8, 2008

Mining companies accused of environmental negligence

Zambia's mines are coming under increasing and sustained criticism for repeatedly polluting drinking water sources in the Copperbelt mining region, the country's economic heartland. This is partly due to the fact that the Zambia’s second largest copper producer, Mopani Copper Mine, which has mining operations in Mufulira town, near the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo, accidentally discharged polluted water, after a pump malfunction failed to purify it, into the reticulated water system of a private water utility company. Nearly 1.000 residents visited local clinics, complaining of abdominal pains, severe diarrhoea and vomiting. No fatalities were recorded, but the widespread poisoning prompted residents to take to the streets in protest and police were called in to calm the demonstrators.
Although Mopani Copper Mine - owned jointly by Canada's First Quantum Minerals, Swiss firm Glencore International and the Zambian government, through ZCCM Investments Holdings - cited the failure to purify the water as an accident, others have accused the company of negligence. "This is an act of total disregard for the rights of the people and the law of the land; it seems to suggest that the rights of the people are dispensable, while investment is indispensable. People are now living in fear because of the negligence of our mining companies, which shouldn't be the case," said Bob Sichinga, a former parliamentarian who once served on the parliamentary mining committee.
Record copper prices of nearly US$8,000 per tonne on the international market have triggered huge investment in Zambia's copper mines over the last three years, but critics have said most investors are putting profit above environmental safety.
In 2007, Zambia's biggest mining company, Konkola Copper Mine [KCM], owned by London-listed Vedanta Resources, caused widespread water pollution when its acidic effluent entered the Kafue River, the main source of water of about 2 million people in the area. Hundreds of people fell sick after eating fish poisoned by the polluted water and more than 50 local farmers have taken legal action demanding compensation from the mining company because their crops withered and died after being irrigated with water from the river.
Under Zambian law, environmental management is a vital component of mining and all mining firms are obliged to prepare detailed environmental impact assessments, indicating how they will mitigate environmental problems such as air and water pollution. Erring companies face prosecution, fines, or the withdrawal of their operating licenses.
In 2006, according to a survey published by the Blacksmith Institute, a New York-based organisation monitoring pollution in the developing world, Kabwe, about 150km north of the capital, Lusaka, and home to 300,000 people, is Africa's most polluted city. It also has the dubious distinction of being ranked as the world's fourth most polluted site. (IRIN)

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