The long, slow poison of Zambia lead mines

From ToxicLeaks

History of Zambia’s lead mines[edit | edit source]

The economy of the southern African nation of Zambia relies heavily on mining and extractive industries, with significant resources in copper – it is the second-largest copper producer on the continent – as well as precious stones, zinc and lead. World Bank figures in 2016 show that the mining sector accounts for 12 percent of the GDP, and 70 percent of the country’s total export value. Development in Zambia includes efforts to promote investment in mining operations, but history and the experience of villagers living near the mines serves as cautionary tale and nowhere is that more true than in the city of Kabwe.

Kabwe is among Zambia’s largest cities, with a population of about 223,000 people living about 150 kilometers to the north of Lusaka. They’re also living at the epicenter of Zambia’s catastrophic history of lead mining, which began more than a century ago when lead was discovered in 1902. Decades of mining continued until 1994 with no environmental protections, polluting the environment on a scale that has earned Kabwe a reputation as one of the most toxic locations on earth. In response to rising prices and demand, lead mining at Kabwe began again after a 2012 sale to Berkeley Mineral Resources.

Previously, the lead and zinc mines were state-owned following nationalization policies in Zambia that began in 1964. The Government of Zambia became majority stakeholder in 1973, with full ownership established in 1982 under Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines Limited and continuing until 2000. The government retained all responsibility for environmental remediation, while Berkeley Mineral Resources has said it is not responsible for the toxic pollution prior to its takeover or any community rehabilitation.

Zambia’s government, however, has struggled financially. Despite years of data that identified severe lead toxicity for those living or working near the mines, and international financing support to help clean up and remediate the damages, it has failed to address the enormity of lead contamination at Kabwe.

Toxic exposure in Kabwe[edit | edit source]

Decades of unregulated corporate mining have poisoned the air, water and soil, the latter to such a degree that the land cannot safely support agriculture for a distance of 14 kilometers from Kabwe. The maize is contaminated by lead in the atmosphere; in chickens raised in the region, the lead exceeds safe levels for human consumption. Recorded levels have been as high as 26,000 mg/kg in the worst spots.

Yet everything is contaminated with astronomically high levels of lead, and the costs to humans has been incalculable. Thousands of people have lead poisoning based on global medical standards, and children are hardest hit with lifelong consequences resulting from toxic exposure. Blood lead levels exceeding 5 micrograms per deciliter (μg/dL) are considered elevated; in one 2015 study, samples taken from 246 Kabwe children under the age of 7 years all exceeded the threshold. Many of them had levels higher than 45 μg/dL, associated with brain and liver damage, while eight children had levels considered potentially fatal at 150 μg/dL with one blood analysis reading at 427.8 μg/dL. For levels above 65 μg/dL, the researchers found that dangerous level in 57 percent of children in Kasanda, 25 percent in Makululu and 18 percent in Chowa, when they looked at the townships considered to be in the Kabwe region.

The public health emphasis is on children because they absorb four to five times as much lead into their brains, bones and other organs, but adults also are affected. The World Health Organization says that in 2013, more than 850,000 people died from lead poisoning across the world, with estimates from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) suggesting that lead poisoning is responsible for 9.3 percent of intellectual disability, 4 percent of ischemic heart disease and 6.6 percent of all strokes.

In Kabwe, those sobering statistics are exacerbated by poverty and a lack of employment opportunities. While industrial-scale mining has caused lead contamination in virtually every home, artisanal mining is the only income-producing option for many of the 60 percent of Zambians living below the poverty line. Local men, women and often children are exposed to lead while mining without any safety protections. A Kabwe school playground tests at 15 times the max level set by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The environmental impacts to air quality, water and soil are profound. Exposure to humans primarily occurs through airborne toxins, or by direct ingestion, although surface and ground water sources and irrigated crops also cause lead exposure. At one time, an open canal carried waste away from the mine and smelter, passing through Kasanda, Chowa and the township of Katondo. It’s been 15 years since a flood pushed the heavy-metal toxins into the communities and gardens, but even today, children drink water directly from contaminated sources near the mine, and it is used for bathing and agriculture. The canal still floods, although it is now more carefully monitored by the Municipal Council in Kabwe.

Zambian government response[edit | edit source]

The situation at Kabwe helped to awaken officials to mining’s impact on Zambia, and initial laws for environmental regulation were passed in 1997. Yet that was 20 years ago, and meaningful impact and real improvement has yet to be achieved. From 2003 to 2011, the Zambian government carried out the Copperbelt Environment Project (CEP) with support from the World Bank and Nordic Development Fund. “Since very little remediation work was completed, the risks to the community remain as high as they were prior to the CEP,” concluded a report by German affiliate of the NGO Terre des Hommes. The 2016 report, completed for the United Nations Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights, was part of an overall effort to emphasize children and the degree to which environment affects human rights.

An independent assessment of the USD$53.1 million CEP found much lower benefits than anticipated, including air, soil and water improvements that did not meet planned targets. The risk of failure at 13 of 17 tailings dams covered across the wider region was never mitigated. While modest successes were achieved, including the removal of 56,000 cubic meters of soil with demolition and revegetation efforts, the 2012 review notes that lack of political will in Zambia for funding and enforcement remain barriers.

New international remediation efforts[edit | edit source]

In 2015, World Bank announced it would support a new effort to clean up lead contamination at Kabwe. A $65.6 million International Development Association (IDA) credit for Zambia was announced in December 2016, and will support mine closures, remediation activities and improved enforcement of both environmental regulations and environmental quality monitoring. It is explicitly a continuation of the CEP program, with the hopes that those lackluster results will, this time, mean change for Kabwe.

The funding is expected to impact 70,000 people, with blood lead level testing, medical treatment and lead poisoning education and awareness. An additional $40 million in IDA credits is designated for agribusiness and economic development, in order to create alternative employment opportunities and reduce the number of artisanal lead miners, children among them, whose lead exposure levels are nearly inconceivable because of the dangerous work in mines without any safety protections or gear.

The Zambia government says it ready to be an active and effective partner in the new initiative. “We acknowledge the damage done by mining waste. From 2016 to 2021 we are working with the World Bank to heal and restore land polluted by heavy metals in Kabwe and other towns,” said Chanda Kabwe, the minister responsible for the region, in a February 2017 interview. Other Zambian officials note that there is now a government fund of $1.7 million to help clean up the toxic lead and treat affected people.

Yet residents of Kabwe said they have heard these promises before without measurable results. In the meantime, they continue to work barefoot in mine shafts and on slag piles, relying on artisanal mining at the subsistence level. Despite the risks, there are few alternatives. Their children play in toxic black dust, the air they breathe is tainted, the water is contaminated, and their backyard gardens yield unsafe food.

Is such a massive cleanup even possible? Scientists with Pure Earth and other organizations think so. The knowledge and technology exists – but not without the government’s support in achieving that goal.