‘I drank the water and ate the fish. We all did. The acid has damaged me permanently’
You can’t see the old Chingola copper mine, with its smelter and refinery, from the village of Shimulala. It’s miles away, beyond 300ft-high hills of waste tailings, the leach plant, the main pollution control dam and the 1,600ft-deep open pit that is one of Africa’s largest holes.
But you can smell and taste the pollution from the biggest copper mine in Africa. If you pump a glass of water from the borehole outside the little church in Shimulala, you will see it is bright yellow, smells of sulphur and tastes vile.
Mining giant Vedanta’s subsidiary company KCM drilled the borehole in 2010 for the village after the Mushishima stream was turned into a river of acid when mining chemicals spilled into it. But a leaked company letter says that chemists who tested borehole water there in 2011 found it tainted with copper residues, acid and minerals, and said it was unfit for consumption. Now the villagers must use the stream too.
1,800 people from Shimulala, Hippo Pool, Hellen and Kakosa villages took their complaints to the high court in London in a case that could last years and make giant mining companies working in developing countries address local pollution more seriously.
The villagers say acid spills and contaminated water in their streams, rivers and boreholes are getting worse. “The frequency and severity of spills is higher and more consistent. Before we could not smell [the pollution] but now we can. The ground is contaminated, our crop yield has dropped, the maize crop is about half what it was,” said Leo Moulenga of Shimulala. “When there is a spill, the air is very acidic. Last week they spilled a lot. It was awful. In the future we don’t think people will be able to live here. It is becoming uninhabitable. The pollution has been incremental. Now it’s getting worse.”
Floribert Kappa, of Hippo Pool, said: “I used to go to the Kafue river to draw water and started drinking it as normal. I saw that fish had died and were floating on the river. We ate the fish and soon everyone started crying with stomach pains. I was given some medicine, but the pains got worse. I collapsed and was taken to a hospital. The diagnosis was that I had drunk or eaten something acidic which had caused damage to my chest and intestines. I was told the damage was permanent. Now I live on painkillers. Everyone here has been affected in some way. We all use the same water. We have tried chlorinating and boiling the water but it still smells acidic.”
Last year Vedanta/KCM made up to £320m profit from the mine but engineers who have worked there say that its pollution treatment works have been pushed beyond their limits by the company to maximise output.