While the biggest United Nations environmental meeting in history entered its second day on Tuesday in Nairobi, Human Rights Watch called on the Kenyan government to stop toxic lead from threatening thousands of lives in a poor district of Mombasa.
“At least three people have died and thousands of others are under threat from toxic lead because the Kenyan authorities didn’t enforce their own environmental laws and regulations,” said Jane Cohen, senior environmental researcher at Human Rights Watch. The group says the “urgent and on-going crisis” is the result of the Kenyan government’s failure to regulate lead smelter from a battery recycling plant that contaminated Mombasa’s Owino Uhuru district for years after it began operating in 2007.
All 193 U.N. member states are participating in this year’s Environmental Assembly meeting, which is being held under the theme of “A Life of Dignity for All.” While chemical waste features prominently on the agenda for discussion, the Kenyan government has made no statement responding to the report by Human Rights Watch yet.
A man who formerly worked at the factory claimed the management manipulated workers into continuing to risk their lives by telling them they would inevitably die from lead poisoning. “Whether we quit or kept working we would die, so we were better off just working,” he explained, relaying the message handed down by management.
On Monday, Human Rights Watch released a short film profiling the public health disaster caused by the government’s ongoing neglect. In the video, workers describe how they were given one pair of gloves per month to handle the highly toxic batteries they broke down and recycled for their lead. After a matter of days, the gloves would shred and they would be forced to continue working with bare hands. The smelter, which was invited to Mombasa by the Kenyan government to boost foreign investment, moved locations earlier this year. However, the lingering effects of lead poisoning still haunt the local community, and Human Rights Watch says the government has continued to do nothing to help.
One former smelter worker, Phyllis Omido, has been leading community efforts to demand a response from the government since her son fell ill from lead poisoning in 2009. After Omido and her fellow workers sent letters to Kenya’s Public Health Agency and received no response, they took to the streets of Mombasa to protest the government’s silence on the issue. Omido was arrested and received death threats following the demonstration. The smelter briefly shut down in 2009 after the government finally conducted an investigation, but soon after received permission to reopen for four more years.
Today, children living in the district still suffer fainting spells, seizures, and chronic pain, and water used for drinking and washing has high levels of contamination, according to the film.
Omido and fellow activists aren’t demanding Kenya make new laws, they just want the government to enforce the ones already on the books. The Environmental Management and Coordination Act, in effect since 1999, makes it illegal for industries to release toxic effluent, such as the lead-contaminated water that runs through Owino Uhuru. The law also threatens those responsible for harmful pollution with imprisonment or fines, but so far this appears to amount to an empty threat.
In an interview with Nairobi’s leading paper, The Star, Kenya’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Environment Program insisted that “Kenya is one of the countries in the world doing a lot to promote green economy.” Kenya has made significant strides in adopting renewable energy, promising to generate over half its electricity through solar power by 2016. However, lead-acid batteries play an important role in making solar power storage possible. For this reason, it is unlikely a shift to clean energy will put an end to battery recycling plants and the threats they pose to unprotected workers.
Since her acquittal, Phyllis Omido has continued to press for the government to take action against environmental issues affecting poor Kenyans by founding the Center for Justice and Environmental Action.
Will Freeman is an intern with Think Progress.