A landmark class action suit against the Kenyan government and a company over compensation for victims of pollution scheduled to start today was held up by two conflicting lawyers, prolonging the plaintiffs’ misery.
Residents of Owino Uhuru in Mombasa County filed the class action lawsuit against thegovernment and the Metal Refinery EPZ Ltd after they fell ill from lead poisoning. They are asking for the equivalent of €13 million ($16 million) in compensation for health problems and to clean up contaminated land.
The lead battery recycling factory EPZ opened in 2007 next to the Owino Uhuru slums. Soon, people in the area started feeling the effects of lead poisoning originating from the plant. At least 20 factory workers and 100 children died. It is estimated that 3,000 residents have been affected by the toxic waste. The factory was established to collect used batteries for smelting. Expert analysis has indicated that carbon compounds emitted from the process entered the food chain and living quarters in adjacent Owino Uhuru slums through effluent and smoke emissions.
Now, two years after the lawsuit was launched, the plaintiffs were scheduled to give their testimony in court in Mombasa for the first time today. But the hearing did not take place because of a dispute between two lawyers representing the victims. Justice Anne Omollo ordered both counsels to come forward on April 27 for the hearing of their applications and rescheduled the opening of the court proceedings to the 15th and 16th of May this year.
Two years after the class action suit was filed in 2015 under the leadership of activist and founder of the non-governmental organization Centre for Justice, Governance and Environmental, Phyllis Omido, the victims are still waiting for their day in court. They include Omido herself, whose son was poisoned by the lead-smelting factory.
Her organization succeeded in forcing the shutdown of the plant, before pushing the courts to secure compensation for the victims and a clean-up of the community. Thousands of locals joined the suit.
Among the victims is Catherine Akello, who takes part in a clinical trial to treat lead poisoning. Her life depends on the success of the doctors' attempt to clean her blood using dialysis. Two of her children have died of lead poisoning and she lost two kidneys: "I started getting sick in 2015, coughing, my skin was itchy and I couldn't walk," she said.
The plant was closed in 2014, but the consequences are still making themselves felt. Owino Uhuru has dangerously high levels of lead in both in the water and soil. Irene Akinyi suffers from a swollen thyroid gland. Her brother and father worked at the plant and she used to wash their clothes: "If the liquid would pour out of the batteries, I would be the one to clean the mess. I didn't know it would affect me." Akinyi is still waiting for the expensive medical treatments she urgently needs.
Like Catherine Akello and Irene Akinyi, the plaintiffs will now have to wait even longer to find out if they will be compensated.
Kathryn Omwandho in Nairobi and Diana Wanyonyi in Mombasa contributed to this article