South Africa’s High Court was told that Anglo American Plc turned a “blind eye” to lead poisoning in the Zambian town of Kabwe, where it held a stake in a mine for almost 50 years.
The case, a hearing to determine whether the lawsuit can be classified as a class action for as many as 140,000 women and children, began Friday and will run until the end of the month. Anglo denies responsibility and opposes attempts to turn the case into a class action.
“Anglo knew of these dangers, or at best turned a blind eye to them,” Gilbert Marcus, counsel for the complainants, said in his opening remarks. “Children were already falling ill and dying of lead poisoning, and a high number of them were suffering from massive blood lead levels while it exercised control of the mine.”
The group lawsuit, filed in South Africa because Anglo was headquartered in Johannesburg when it held a stake in the Broken Hill mine, follows several similar cases. In 2018, Anglo and five other companies paid about $390 million to settle a class action by former gold miners suffering from the respiratory disease silicosis. Gencor Ltd. — a mining conglomerate that has now closed — in 2003 paid $60 million to settle claims from asbestos miners.
Anglo, which had a stake in the Broken Hill Mine between 1925 and 1974, said it only held a shareholding in the operator and mining continued after the mine was nationalised.
“An attempt is being made to hold Anglo American South Africa liable for a mine we have never owned nor operated and for pollution and harm that others have caused,” Anglo said in a response to queries from Bloomberg. “We do not believe it is correct to attribute legal responsibility to Anglo American South Africa for the current situation.”
The lawsuit, filed by 13 plaintiffs on behalf of the community, is demanding compensation and a clean up of the area. Lead poisoning can cause health problems ranging from learning difficulties to infertility, brain damage and, in some cases, death.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Toxics and Human Rights has been admitted to the case as a “friend of the court,” arguing that by opposing the class action Anglo is denying justice to thousands of people who couldn’t afford to bring individual cases.
Anglo American, now based in London, said it “has been unwavering in its commitment to ensuring that we continue to build on our reputation as a responsible miner.” The law firms that filed the case and their funders are “completely ignoring the clear culpability of the other responsible parties,” it said.