Africa, Environment, Headlines

ZAMBIA-ENVIRONMENT: Copper Giant Loses Immunity

Allan Peters

LUSAKA, Jun 13 1996 (IPS) - A recently enacted law has stripped Zambia’s copper mining giant of immunity from prosecution for air pollution, protection it had enjoyed for decades.

“Any legislation which encourages development and greed for wealth at the expense of people’s health and their environment should be condemned with the contempt it deserves,” said environment and natural resources minister, William Harrington.

Harrington was addressing parliament last month when the Actions for Smoke Damage (Prohibition) Act was tabled and repealed.

The Act had been designed by the former colonial authorities to indemnify them from litigation when they began to commercially exploit Zambia’s rich copper reserves.

Even after independence in 1964, the law was retained, probably because copper exports by the state-owned Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines (ZCCM) account for 90 percent of foreign earnings.

For more than a generation, people in the northern copperbelt region have been exposed to the sulphur dioxide fumes pumped into the air from mining operations. The mineworkers are particularly hard hit, their townships sited downwind of the chimneys of the ore smelting plants.

According to the ministry of mines’ safety department, there has been an upswing of people reporting to clinics with respiratory complaints in the mining townships of Luanshya, Kitwe and Mufulira.

Pollution also seems to have affected the soil in these localities, which are devoid of vegetation, even grass. The situation is the same in Kitwe’s Wusakile and Chamboli compounds and Mpatamato in Luanshya, both about 400 km north of the capital, Lusaka.

Urging the national assembly to support the pursuit of a cleaner environment on a sustainable basis, Harrington slammed the inconsistency in environmental protection, as ZCCM was the only industry immune to prosecution for pollution.

For instance, last year the sole independent oil refinery was fined 5,000 U.S. dollars by a magistrate’s court for allowing oil to spill into a river which was the only sources of clean water to the surrounding communities.

“There is no fairness in prosecuting all other industries in Zambia on pollution offences with the exception of one industrial giant because there is a special law specially enacted to protect its from any such prosecution,” noted Harrington, stressing that repealing the law was part of the global campaign to make the environment a safe place in which to live.

Environmentalists have welcomed the scrapping of the old law.

“Individuals or a group of people can now sue ZCCM and if they prove beyond doubt that the fumes have a direct bearing on their ill-health, and (they) can be compensated under the new statutes,” Katongo Chisupa, spokesman for the environment council of Zambia (ECZ) told IPS.

Set up 1991 at the behest of environmental lobbyists here, the ECZ which helped strip the ZCCM of its indemnification from prosecution is committed to controlling industrial pollution — especially on the copperbelt — of air and water.

The ECZ also monitors soil degradation, deforestation and wildlife depletion.

“with the repealed law, we’re no longer toothless since we can now bite even the untouchable giant ZCCM. However, the council is not just a police (force),” says Chisupa. “It develops standards and regulations on waste disposal and advises industries and individuals on how to protect the environment through educational campaigns, instead of concentrating on arresting offenders only.”

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