Anglo American is facing a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of more than 100,000 Zambians over the toxic legacy of a huge mine in which it held a stake for decades.
The company’s subsidiary in Johannesburg was served with the lawsuit on Wednesday by lawyers representing people potentially affected by poisoning of soil and water around Kabwe, once the world’s largest lead mine.
The mine was part of Anglo’s empire from the 1920s until it was nationalised in 1974. Operations ended two decades later but according to experts cited in the filing, a failure to clean up the mine left dangerous levels of lead in the environment.
Leigh Day, the UK law firm leading the suit, said in court papers that Anglo should be held liable “because it played a key role in controlling, managing, supervising and advising on technical, medical and safety aspects of the operations of the mine” that failed to prevent lead contamination.
The lawsuit is aimed at securing compensation and clean-up costs from Anglo.
Two-thirds of all the lead mined at Kabwe, in the centre of the southern African nation, was produced during Anglo’s involvement in operations, it added.
“This is a tragic environmental case because of the impact that it has had on such a large number of children, not just now but through the generations,” said Richard Meeran, a Leigh Day partner. “This is unprecedented in that sense.”
Among the 13 plaintiffs leading the class action are children with signs of lead poisoning and women who might face risks in pregnancy from their exposure.
Anglo said it would review the claims and “take all necessary steps to vigorously defend its position”.
It added that it was “at all times far from being a majority owner” of Kabwe through the decades and that after nationalisation Zambia’s state-owned mine company ran production until the mine’s closure.
The case underlines the growing scope of class-action cases brought against global mining companies over the long-term legacy of their operations.
Such suits have been brought against South African mining companies by former workers suffering from the effects of dust inhalation. Corporations across the continent have faced similar actions over mine fatalities and human rights abuses.
Mining groups are increasingly acknowledging the environmental and social legacies of their operations.
Mark Cutifani, Anglo’s chief executive, said this month that “we are acutely aware of the deep and lasting effects of our history as an industry . . . while our progress is encouraging, we are still not where we need to be”.
The lawsuit is being backed by Augusta Ventures, the UK’s largest litigation finance fund by number of cases. Mr Meeran said Augusta would finance the costs of crucial expert evidence and a large part of legal fees in return for a share of the damages if the case was successful.
Zanele Mbuyisa, a South African lawyer working with Leigh Day, said Anglo was “a mining giant that has been instrumental in building the economies of various countries”.
It also had to be acknowledged that their operations had caused “long-lasting damage to the health of those communities”, she added.