“I won’t give up,” says the Goldman Prize winner fighting to deliver justice to Kenya’s lead poisoning victims

“I won't give up,” says the Goldman Prize winner fighting to deliver justice to Kenya's lead poisoning victims

Phyllis Omido talks to children from her local community outside a former lead smelter plant. The children play in the dirt, next to the factory wall, where the soil is still contaminated with lead.

(Goldman Environmental Prize)

In 2015, Phyllis Omido – a woman dubbed the ‘east African Erin Brockovitch’ – won the Goldman Environmental Prize for her activism against lead poisoning in her community of Owino Uhuru near the Kenyan coastal city of Mombassa.

In Kenya, as in many parts of Africa, the re-smelting of lead from old car batteries is big business, particularly because of the burgeoning popularity of solar panels. But lead recycling by melting down used batteries is also incredibly toxic, with noxious fumes and spilled waste water polluting the air, soil and water. The side effects of inhaled or ingested lead include brain damage, renal failure, reproductive issues and even death.

Omido’s campaign led to the closure of Kenya Metal Refineries EPZ Limited, an Indian-owned lead-smelting factory that was found to be poisoning the local environment, leading to deaths and illnesses amongst residents, including her own child.

Little did she know that this would only be the first part of the battle. After winning the prize and ensuring the closure of the factory along with several other lead smelters, the 41-year-old founder and chief executive officer of the Centre for Justice, Governance and Environmental Action (CJGEA) had planned to focus her money and attention on securing treatment for the people affected by deadly lead pollution. Instead, she has been forced to fight a new crusade: to recover the US$375,000 in donations and prize money her organisation lost as a result of the collapse of the bank where she had deposited her money, and to keep herself, her family and her co-workers safe from violent attacks.

“I had won US$175,000 [from the Goldman Environmental Prize] and I received over US$200, 000 from donors to the organisation. All this was lost with the collapse of the Imperial Bank of Kenya,” Omido tells Equal Times.

In October 2015, the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) announced that it had placed Imperial Bank under receivership for one year for what the banking regulator termed as “unsafe banking” conditions. On 11 December 2018, CBK announced that Imperial Bank customers would be given access to 12.7 per cent of their money through the Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB). According to a KCB spokesperson, the bank is in the final stages of acquiring Imperial; this will see eligible depositors recover a further, and final, 19.7 per cent of their remaining balances. However, this still leaves depositors like Omido with a massive shortfall and no hope of restitution.

The result has been catastrophic for CJGEA. “Donors have pulled out their support for the organisation because of lack of trust. I’ve lost three key international partners because they could not believe that their money had sunk with the bank. Now I am trying to get new partners, but it is so hard,” Omido says despairingly.

CJGEA had been providing more than 800 children and many adults with medical treatment, nutritional assistance and supplements to help flush out the heavy metal from their bodies, but Omido says her organisation can no longer afford it. “The minute we stopped providing this support, 10 children died.” Omido, says she was also conducting research to establish how many of Owino Uhuru’s 5,000 residents actually have lead poisoning, but to date, only a third of this low-income community have been tested. It is sheer grit and determination that sees Omido carry on with her mission: “The organisation is still running because I am determined to see justice for the people,” she says.

An opportunity turned nightmare

In 2009, Omido – a single mother to a then infant baby called King David – was hired by EPZ Limited as a community liaison officer. The company had been operating for two years at the time, and Omido was tasked with conducting an environmental impact report. Working with a group of experts, she found that the factory’s proximity to Owino Uhuru left its residents vulnerable to lead exposure. Soil tests showed that lead levels had increased almost tenfold between 2008 and 2009, when the plant became operational. Her report suggested the relocation of the factory, but her recommendations were dismissed by the management and Omido was reassigned.

Shortly after, she noticed that King David had begun to get sick and she suspected that her breast milk was the cause of his vomiting and frequent fevers. Tests revealed that his blood contained lead at a level of 35 micrograms per decilitre (35 μg/dL); the US Center for Disease Control considers 5 μg/dL in children as cause for intervention. It was then that she quit her job and began campaigning for the closure of the factory, which eventually ceased operations in 2014.

Local resident Hosea Jackson, 50, says that when the factory was being built in 2006, no one had any idea that it would pose a threat to their lives. Good jobs in this informal settlement are extremely rare, and EPZ Limited were offering labourers about US$6 a day to extracted lead from used car batteries – almost twice the amount most local people got paid working at Mombassa port. “We had been informed that it was a biscuit manufacturing company and so we had no problem with that. When the factory eventually opened, everyone was still happy because it had created jobs. But shortly after, my children started having persistent coughs. I never worked in the factory but because of the smoke, we would all cough non-stop,” he explains.

A 2018 report by Quartz Africa noted that labourers at the plant worked without protection, while smoke from the smelter chimney blew over the houses that were just feet away.

Jackson, a father of seven, says that two of his children are now suffering from lead poisoning. “My wife suffered a miscarriage and I started getting sick. My body was weak all of the time and I had persistent fevers. By this time we had been informed of the dangers of the factory and so we were aware. It was confirmed by the doctor that I had developed kidney problems as a result of the lead poisoning,” he says.

Jackson says that Omido and her organisation used to provide a crucial lifeline for the community, where as many as 3,000 are thought to have been affected by lead poisoning to varying degrees. “We were receiving help from CJGEA – medical treatment, food – but this then stopped shortly after. I now spend about US$100 every month for medication and I am not working.”

There are many others whose treatment has stopped entirely since the CJGEA’s money was squandered by Imperial Bank. “There is one mother whose kidneys failed and because she had no money to go to the hospital, she died. We had put her on treatment and she was on the verge of recovery before we lost our money,” says Omido.

Violent attacks and harassment

These days, Omido channels CJGEA’s limited resources into raising awareness about lead poisoning and providing people with information on how they can seek help. But she still wants to do more. “I have lost money, staff, partners and children, but I won’t give up until justice is delivered. When I see mothers dying, when I see children dying it because of this it makes me so sad, but it gives me the strength to push on.”

In 2016, the CJGEA and nine local residents hired a team of lawyers to file a class action lawsuit against the Kenyan government, EPZ Limited and the Penguin Paper and Book Company (the company which housed the smelter, not related to the international publishing company), claiming the factory violated Kenyan and international law. They are seeking 1.6 billion Kenya shillings (approximately US$15 million) to clean up the contaminated land and compensate the thousands of people affected.

Since filing the lawsuit, Omido and her colleagues have been subject to violence and harassment; they have been stalked, beaten up, attacked, arrested and subject to death threats. Two of her colleagues have even had their homes destroyed in arson attacks, prompting a warning to end these “human rights abuses” from the then United Nations special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, John H. Knox.

A verdict is expected this July. “I hope this will be the last hearing and a ruling will be made. I expect the ruling to be in our favour. I am demanding for the treatment of everyone in the community, cleanup of the environment, compensation for the life lost and those whose health has been compromised,” she says.

It’s been five years since the closure of the plant but the soil is still toxic, the water is still poisoned, people are still getting sick and mothers are unable to carry their babies to full term. There has been talk of relocating the community but many of the families have lived on this land for generations, and the close proximity to the port means that jobs and land in this area are at a premium. With that in mind, most people have nowhere else to go.

CJGEA is also working with other environmental activists and organisations to pass on the lessons of Owino Uhuru and help create awareness in the coastal area of Lamu where the construction of a controversial coal-fired thermal power station was halted after judges revoked its environmental licence last month. “My role is to let people know that they have the right to information.

Unlike what happened in Owino Uhuru, people have to understand exactly what the plant is for, the negative effects, if any, and how it will benefit them. Most of the time people are only told about the benefits and because of that they end up regretting it later.” Despite all the setbacks, Omido is determined to get what’s owed to the people of Owino Uhuru and to ensure that no community in Kenya ever suffers like this again.