“The doctors said the lead reached my baby through my breast milk.”
This was the moment when Phyllis Omido realised that the lead smelting plant she was working at was poisoning an entire slum in Kenya. It is also the moment when Omido embarked on an epic mission to save the slum’s community and force the smelter to close. Thankfully she succeeded – she gave the above quote in London last week while on her way to San Francisco to receive the prestigious Goldman prize for environmental campaigners. She’d won their Africa award for her work fighting against the plant.
They now call Phyllis the ‘East African Erin Brockovich’, and this is her heroic story.
[From The Guardian]
The smelter – built in the heart of Owino Uhuru, a densely-packed slum in Mombasa, Kenya’s second city – extracted lead from used car batteries. In the process, it emitted fumes laden with lead and spewed untreated acid wastewater into streams where people bathed. Lead is a potent neurotoxin. It damages the development of children, targeting the brain and nervous system.
The smelter had begun operations in 2009 without any environmental impact assessment (EIA). One of Phyllis’s first jobs was to commission one. When the findings revealed that the smelter was poisoning the neighbourhood, she figured that the only honest thing for a community relations officer to do was recommend that the smelter be closed and relocated somewhere safer.
Her employers thought differently. She was swiftly reassigned and the company brought in another consultant to complete the EIA. But when her baby son became ill and tests revealed lead poisoning, what had been a professional dispute became personal.
“When my baby came out of hospital, I wanted to know if other children were being poisoned. I picked three at random and got their blood tested,” she remembered. In each case, their blood-lead levels were well above the danger level for children set by the US Centers for Disease Control. She left the company and began a campaign to shut the smelter.
“I went to the company’s directors and the government’s environment agency, which had licensed the smelter. I showed them reports from lead experts. But nobody wanted to listen,” she says. Meanwhile, children were getting sick; women were having miscarriages; even the neighbourhood chickens were dying.
She claims that the company routinely sacked workers after a few months because it knew their exposure to lead was unsafe. But after a worker died, the community held a demonstration. A local MP, who was also a minister for the environment, came. “We hoped he would help. But he said we should keep quiet because the company brought jobs. He accused me of being in league with his political opponents.”
After another demonstration, Phyllis was arrested and taken to court for inciting violence. “I could have got ten years if I had been found guilty. But the judge threw the case out.”
After that, she got help from outside groups including Human Rights Watch. After a meeting with the UN special rapporteur on toxic waste, a committee of the Kenyan senate came to see the situation. By 2014, facing the risk of a dressing down from the senate and another round of national publicity, the company finally closed the plant.
It was victory. But Phyllis wasn’t done.
She has set up a local NGO, the Center for Justice, Governance and Environmental Action, to fight other causes, like salt miners who are damaging Kenya’s nearby coastal fisheries.
How is her son? “He is well now,” she says. “Some people say I should get his IQ tested to see if the lead damaged his development, but I don’t want to do that. What difference would it make?”
Image courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize