A Judge in London yesterday approved a settlement reached by Vedanta Resources covering 634 Zambian children in group litigation claiming that residents were harmed by discharges of toxic water connected to the mining giant’s copper operations.
Judge Edward Murray said after reading submissions to the High Court from lawyers for the claimants and Vedanta Resources Ltd. that he was satisfied that the settlement is “fair and reasonable” and in the best interest of the child claimants.
The details of the settlement are confidential.
The overall litigation, brought on behalf of the 3,730 individuals, arises from alleged harmful emissions from the Nchanga Copper Mine in Chingola, causing environmental and health concerns for the farming community residents.
The pollution from the mining operation has harmed the residents, their counsel, Richard Hermer QC of Matrix Chambers, told the court on Monday.
Vedanta is liable because it is Konkola’s parent company, he added.
Hermer said the case has already gone to the U.K.’s Supreme Court, which ruled in April 2019 that the claim for negligence and breach of statutory duty and its English parent company could be heard in England’s courts.
As part of that decision, Britain’s highest court backed a lower court’s ruling that Vedanta had assumed a duty of care over the operation of Konkola’s mine.
The overall case is still very much in its procedural infancy because of the detour to the Supreme Court, Hermer told Judge Murray on Monday.
“But the parties, as my lord will have seen, have constructively engaged in alternative dispute resolution and that has led to this morning’s application in respect of the children, there are 634 for whom we seek approval,” he said.
Representatives known as litigation friends for nine additional children are still being tracked down.
The judge agreed to Hermer’s request for the court to simply add the others to the order later if they approve of the deal on the basis of paper filings.
Counsel for Vedanta, Ognjen Miletic of Henderson Chambers, asked for the details of the settlement to be kept confidential, saying it could affect negotiations with the other claimants.
“It would be potentially prejudicial to Vedanta further down the line, in negotiating in relation to those claims if certain terms of these agreements…become publicly known,” Miletic said.
“Confidentiality is also required to protect the interests of children,” Vedanta’s lawyer said.
Judge Murray said confidential details of the deal didn’t need to be publicly disclosed, as he had read about them in written submissions before the hearing.
Hermer asked for the settlement to be sealed after he signed it off.
“It’s the start of the school year in Zambia and my lord would have seen that we’re quite keen for the wheels to be set in motion for funds to be released as soon as possible, in order to enable as many children as possible to be able to go to school,” Hermer said.
The judge said he would arrange with his clerk for that to happen straight away.
According to the Supreme Court’s April 2019 judgment, the claimants say that their health and their farming activities have been damaged by repeated discharges of toxic matter from the Nchanga Copper Mine in Zambia into their water, starting in 2005.
The Zambian citizens are, “by any standards, very poor members of rural farming communities served by watercourses which provide their only source of water for drinking (by themselves and their livestock) and irrigation for their crops,” the judgment notes.
The Nchanga Copper Mine has an open-pit excavation that is said to be the second largest in the world, according to the judgment.
Konkola Copper Mines PLC is Zambia’s largest private employer, providing jobs to some 16,000 people, mainly at the mine.
Vedanta, incorporated and headquartered in London, employs some 82,000 people worldwide.
The claims against both defendants include negligence and breach of statutory duty, the 2019 judgment states.
The causes of action against Vedanta arise by reason of the “very high level of control and direction that [Vedanta] exercised at all material times over the mining operations of the second defendant and its compliance with applicable health, safety and environmental standards,” according to the case’s particulars of claim.
The claimants are represented by Richard Hermer QC of Matrix Chambers, instructed by Leigh Day.
Vedanta is represented by Ognjen Miletic of Henderson Chambers, instructed by Herbert Smith Freehills.
The case is Nchanga Copper Mine Group Litigation v Vedanta Resources Ltd and another, case number QB-2020-001976, in the High Court of Justice of England and Wales.