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A group of Zambian women and children filed a suit against Anglo American Plc in South Africa, alleging the company caused widespread lead poisoning from a mine it operated until 1974 in the northern city of Kabwe.
The case, which is demanding compensation and a clean-up of the area, was filed in a Johannesburg court on Wednesday by 13 plaintiffs on behalf of an estimated 100,000 people, according to law firms Leigh Day and Mbuyisa Moleele. The firms plan to apply for a class-action suit. Anglo American will “defend its position,” the company said.
“Generations of children have been poisoned by the operations of the Kabwe mine, originally known as Broken Hill, which caused widespread contamination of the soil, dust, water and vegetation,” the firms said in a statement. “The main sources of this poisonous lead were from the smelter, ore processing and tailings dumps.”
The group lawsuit is the latest over Anglo American’s decades of mining in southern Africa. In 2018, it and five other companies paid about $390m to settle a class action by former gold miners suffering from the respiratory disease silicosis.
“Once the claim is received, the company will review the claims made by the firm and will take all necessary steps to vigorously defend its position,” Anglo said in an emailed response to questions. Anglo was never the majority owner of the Kabwe mine, it said, without giving more precise detail.
Anglo held an interest in the mine, at one stage the world’s biggest lead operation, from 1925 to 1974, when it was nationalized by the government. While the operation about 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of the Zambian capital, Lusaka, was eventually shut in 1994, output during Anglo’s ownership accounted for about two-thirds of the lead that now contaminates the area, the law firms said.
“Anglo was the parent company and the head office of the Anglo Group that operated, managed and advised the mine,” the legal firms said in the court filing. “Anglo knew, or ought reasonably to have known of the risks of lead pollution from the mine and the measures that were required to prevent and address this pollution.”
Lead poisoning can cause health problems ranging from learning difficulties to infertility, brain damage and, in some cases, death. In a 2019 report, Human Rights Watch said that a third of the population of Kabwe, or more than 76,000 people, live in lead-contaminated areas.
“It is the worst place I’ve seen and that is in terms of the sheer size and the number of people affected,” said Jack Caravanos, a professor at New York University, who studies lead and other toxic waste. “In terms of the number of people affected, Kabwe is the most dangerous place on the planet” in regards to lead pollution, he said.
The lawsuit was filed in South Africa because at the time of the mine’s operation Anglo was headquartered in Johannesburg. The company is now based in London.