Kenya: Fight to Expose Lead Poisoning Pays Off for Whistle-Blower

23 September 2020

In 2016, Phyllis Omido, 42, took the government head on when she sued it and a lead smelter, Metal Refinery EPZ Ltd, for pollution and lead poisoning among residents of Owino Uhuru village in Changamwe, Mombasa.

The factory was established in 2009 to collect used batteries for smelting but was shut down in 2014 after Ms Omido, a former employee, became a whistle-blower.

Ms Omido, herself a victim of the poisoning -- her son became sick only for his blood test to reveal he had acute high levels of lead -- raised the alarm over the firm, which was exposing residents to lead poisoning.

Metal Refinery EPZ Ltd was engaged in the business of recycling used lead batteries by smelting them at extremely high temperatures, extracting the lead components, packaging the same and exporting it to external markets.

Four years later, she eventually won the court battle against the smelter owned by foreign tycoons and former MP Hezron Awiti Bolo.

The village that sits on 13.5 acres with 3,000 residents was contaminated. Locals' tribulations began in early 2010, a year after the lead smelting factory began its operations in the village.

Won award

Fast forward to 2020, the mother of two has won the 2020 Ethecon Blue Planet Award for her heroic efforts on environmental conservation.

In a statement, Ethecon Foundation Ethics and Economy, a German-based organisation, said it awarded Ms Omido because of her actions in defending the environment and human rights.

"She resolutely stands up not only for human and environmental rights, but also for expansion of the universal basic rights. She acts for the benefit of human community," read a statement by Ethecon.

Unprotected workers

The organisation stated that Ms Omido followed her conscience as an employee of the metal refinery and pointed out to her seniors the dangers that the melting of car batteries posed to unprotected workers and residents.

Ms Omido, who is also the founder and executive-director of Centre for Justice and Environmental Action, is also known for organising protests, enduring arrests, intimidation and threats in her more than a decade's mission as she fought for rights of residents who had been affected by the lead.

"I am so honoured to receive this award. It is a great privilege. It shows that the international community appreciates the work we do for the people in the grassroots," an excited Ms Omido said after receiving news of winning the award.

She added that her publishing of a book in German language on safe disposal of car batteries could have contributed to her winning the award.

Court battle

The award comes amid an ongoing court battle between the government and the residents of Owino Uhuru over their compensation.

Attorney-General Kihara Kariuki has filed a notice of appeal against the ruling, saying the State is aggrieved by the landmark monetary award.

"Take notice that the AG being dissatisfied with the whole decision of the Environment and Land Court, intends to appeal against the same," said the notice.

But Ms Omido said the move by the government to appeal the ruling will not only cause a delay in justice but it also shows the government's failure to appreciate her work for the people.

"I wish we also got appreciated by the government. If the government cared for its people, then it would not be appealing," she said.

She noted that since it may take at least a year before the residents are compensated, Kenya has a long way to go in environmental conservation and social justice.

In 2015, she also won the Goldman Environmental Prize, where she was recognised for her campaign against lead poisoning in the Owino Uhuru slums.

This year's Ethecon Blue Planet Award will be presented in a public ceremony in Berlin, Germany on November 2.

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