Since the smelter began operations in 2007, residents in Owino Uhuru say they have experienced an increase in miscarriages and impotence, and parents told Human Rights Watch that their children always seem sick. Blood tests performed on some children in the community in 2009 found high levels of lead. No significant local source of lead has been identified other than the smelter. “Wastewater flows out of a hole in the smelter wall and drains into the community,”
The smelter in Owino Uhuru operated almost continuously between 2007 and 2014, despite evidence, described in the government’s 2009 report, that it endangered the health of its workers and nearby residents, and despite Kenyan laws that should have provided protection. .
Although the smelter is no longer polluting Owino Uhuru, the toxic effects of lead remain in the community. Children have not been tested for lead poisoning and still live in contaminated homes. Children and workers who were exposed to high levels of lead have not received medical treatment. The families of those workers who died have not received any compensation.
The Kenyan government has strong environmental laws and regulations meant to protect citizens from environmental degradation and harm. The Environmental Management and Coordination Act has regulations preventing industries from releasing toxic effluent and from polluting the air, and specifies that an Environmental Impact Assessment must be undertaken before operations can begin. According to the Environmental Management and Coordination Act, those responsible for pollution that causes either people or the environment harm will face imprisonment or financial penalties.
Both the Environmental Management and Coordination Act and the Kenyan constitution specify the right to a healthy environment. The constitution also guarantees citizens a right to fair working conditions. The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, to which Kenya is a state party, requires Kenya to respect and protect the right of all people to a general satisfactory environment favorable to their development.
Kenya is party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Both treaties oblige the government to protect the health of its citizens, with a special emphasis on children. Kenya has also ratified multiple International Labour Organization conventions, which provide for workers who are injured on the job.
“The government could have avoided the massive environmental contamination of Owino Uhuru and related deaths if local and national officials had followed their own laws,” Cohen said. “The authorities need to give residents of Owino Uhuru the protection and care they deserve and need.”