The Erin Brockovich of East Africa Wins a Lawsuit

In a sign that the environmental justice that many are able to get in U.S. courts may be reaching less-developed countries, a Kenyan court has awarded villagers approximately $12 million after their community was collectively sickened by lead from a battery plant. The verdict followed a long grassroots campaign by a Kenyan woman to get justice for the villagers. After her highly-public campaign with demonstrations and pressure, the woman became known as the "East African Erin Brockovich." This case bears some similarities to the famous U.S. case that was the subject of a blockbuster movie.

A Battery Factory Sickened a Village

The woman behind the case is named Phyllis Omido. She wored in community relations at the Metal Refinery EPZ plant near her village outside of Mombassa. In 2009, she noticed that her and her baby were sick. She began to wonder why there was a pungent smell at the factory that caused her eyes to burn. The baby's symptoms were caused by the fact that there was lead in her breast milk. After that, she quit her job at the company. When she began to notice that others in her area suffered from similar symptoms, she began a public campaign against the company.

Her activism started with convincing fellow villages to get tested. Their test results also revealed that they were sickened by lead poisoning. She began to hold public demonstrations against the factory to alert the public of the dangers that the company posed. She also called for an investigation into the health problems that the villagers faced.

The factory was eventually shut down, but it was not due to her activism. Instead, there was a law passed in Kenya that made it illegal to export scrap metal. This caused the factory to close. However, this did not put an end to the health effects that villagers were feeling after eight years of operation of the plant.

By 2015, the government had administered tests and learned that the villages had lead levels in their blood that were dangerous. Of course, any lead in the bloodstream is insafe. Even though Omido was already started to receive international recognition for her efforts, she was far from done.

For Omido, the campaign posed significant risks to her physical safety given the instability and political system in Kenya. She has claimed that she was attacked every time she left her village to go to court. She lived behind gates and had three locks on her front door. She even carried a GPS system with her wherever she went so that her whereabouts could be tracked. She has even been arrested five times and have received multiple death threats. Her colleagues had their homes broken into and burned.

The lawsuit followed against the company seeking compensation for the damage done. The court case accused both the factory owners and the government of violating Kenyan law and international treaties. Taking on the government in Kenya poses a dramatic risk. She was even the beneficiary of a request from the United Nations that the government do a better job of protecting her. The police ultimately investigated the threats against her and claimed that they "dealt with" the matter.

The Class Action Plaintiffs Were Awarded $12 Billion

In July 2020, the court issued its decision in the class action lawsuit. The court found for the plaintiffs and awarded them 13 billion Kenyan Shillings. This works out to roughly $12 million at the official exchange rate. In addition, the judge ordered both the government and the factory owner to clean up the environmental damage caused by their operations at the site. The judge's order gave them four months to complete the cleanup. The defendants were allotted 90 days by the court to pay out the compensation money. It is unclear how the money will be allocated among the plaintiffs.

The county where the village is located had already begun to take some measures to help the villagers, but there are still outstanding medical bills that need to be paid. There are likely many more stories like this in Africa that have gone unaddressed and unreported because those suffering lack a champion like Omido.

In the meantime, there is still plenty of work to be done. Hundreds of children have been sickened and still need to be tested. In the meantime, those who have lead poisoning will need years of treatment and care.

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