Mining giant to pay damages after court rules sulphur dioxide emissions at copper plant led to death of politician
Toxic fumes from one of Glencore’s copper plants in Zambia caused the death of a politician, the African country’s high court said, in a ruling that could trigger fresh claims against the company.
The London-listed mining and commodities trader was ordered to pay 400,000 Zambian kwacha (£30,000) in damages to the widower of Beatrice Mithi, apolitician who died after inhaling sulphur dioxide released by Glencore subsidiary Mopani Copper Mines.
The ruling in June means Glencore could face new claims from residents of the Mufulira district, where local people have long complained of health problemsallegedly caused by emissions from Mopani’s copper smelter.
Laywers for Glencore contested the claim, citing an environmental indemnity agreement signed with the Zambian government in 2000.
However, a judge in Kabwe, in Zambia’s Copperbelt region,ruled that the agreement did not apply because sulphur dioxide emissions had exceeded legal limits.
“By emitting sulphur dioxide into the environment exceeding statutory limitations [Mopani Copper Mines] breached its duty of care owed to her [Mithi] and the community,” the ruling said.
Mr Justice Sichinga also dismissed evidence from two doctors, who claimed that asthma, diabetes and heart problems may have caused her death.
The legal battle featured in the Rundschau programme on the SRF TV channel in Switzerland.
A postmortem found that Mithi died from “acute respiratory failure due to inhalation of toxic fumes” at a church service on New Years’ Eve in 2013.
The FTSE 100 firm completed a £300m project in 2014 to build an acid plant to raise the capture of sulphur dioxide from 50% to 97%.
The Switzerland-based commodities and mining giant is appealing against the decision in Zambia’s supreme court.
In a statement, Glencore cited “procedural irregularities” in the ruling, saying the judge did not consider evidence that its defence team submitted.
Glencore said the judge “misinterpreted” defence evidence and disputed any link between emmissions at Mopani’ and Mithi’s death.
Traidcraft, which is campaigning for greater legal accountability for companies operating overseas, said: “This is yet another case of an irresponsible company, listed in the UK, causing serious harm through its operations in a developing country.
“The decision of the Zambian high court in this case is welcome, but it’s hard to see how it will have much of a deterrent effect on this or other companies.
“The government have an opportunity right now to deal with this. They are looking at how to prosecute companies for ‘white collar’ crimes but this could be extended to consider other serious corporate crimes, including failure to deal with severe pollution or causing deaths.”
Glencore bought Mopani Copper Mines in 2000, inheriting a longstanding sulphur emissions problem that has fuelled simmering tension with the community.Anger at emissions erupted in riots in August 2014.
It has previously enjoyed immunity from claims relating to the period between 2000 and 2014 thanks to its environmental liability agreement.