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Monday, 12 March 2012

A reason to be hopeful?

Zambia Environmental Management Authority (ZEMA) recently ordered Mopani copper Mine, a unit of leading global commodity trader Glencore International PLC, to suspend part of its operations. It said it had inspected the site and that heap leaching—a process that involves metals being leached from a heap of crushed ore by applying acid to it—couldn't be resumed until the company had completed eight recommended measures to reduce its effect on the surrounding area (with over 3,000 residents). Mopani has been asked to prepare a comprehensive environmental and social management plan for the heap leaching process and submit it for approval.

Butondo residents had complained of pollution which had also affected vegetation for a long time. The agency's inspection of the plant revealed that there was no acid mist or vapour barrier to minimise effects on more than 3,000 local residents. ZEMA statistics show an increase in the number of cases of pulmonary, throat, nose and ear ailments.

We have long highlighted the appaling environmental damage by mining companies to nearby communities. Acid has even found its way into drinking water supplies leading poisoning. We should not have mines that have no proper environmental audits and effective agents of ecological genocide. Other groups such as CTPD recently threatened to launch legal action against the company if nothing was done about its claims that the 'leaching' process used in copper production was causing sulphuric acid to leak into water used by communities living and working near the mine. ZEMA’s decision is a move in the right direction. The only question is why no impose monetary penalties if damage is already being caused to wellbeing?

The reaction from Mopani has been predictably poor claiming it was surprised by at the action and may be forced to lay off staff following the closure, “every day of suspension is costing the company in the region of 525 million kwachaand unfortunately calls into question whether Mopani can continue to support 310 jobs created by the heap leach project”. What is the use of these jobs if the costs are merely being shifted to local residents through poor health? 

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