Swiss multi-national Glencore is destroying the town on Mufulira in the Copperbelt Province of Zambia. Glencore operates a copper mine and smelter meters away from residential homes, schools and churches. The facility was originally operated by the Zambia government, but as privatization has swept through Africa, the operation was purchased by Glencore from the Zambia Government. Glencore owns 73% of the mine and smelter and it is said that the government has kept nominal shares.,
The Glencore Mupani Copper mine and smelter is said to be the oldest operation in Zambia, beginning in 1938. Aggressive expansions are set for the year end of 2007. The addition of the sulfuric acid has compounded the problems that community members face.
On September 15, 2007, a team of environmental experts from Global Community Monitor and groundWork of South Africa was given a tour of the area by Edward Lange of DECOP, a Zambian NGO working in support of communities in the affected area. As we drove through the town center, poverty in the area is evident. Roads are in bad shape in contrast to the highways that connect the copper operations to main highways that transport products and raw materials. We stop every few meters to avoid large pot holes and unrepaired ditches. Shops and businesses don’t reflect the wealth of a major development in the area. It’s only later when we pass the offices, schools, hospitals and management houses of the mine that there is a hint of prosperity.
Approaching the mine and smelter, large areas of open dirt fields with no vegetation are evident. The area is desert and a virtual wasteland. Fumes from the smelter heavy with acid prevent any plants from growing. Residents complained about the difficulty of growing crops and food from gardens. The smelter is not in operation as we pass by with no odors or smoke evident. We proceeded into the community north of the operations to see homes with metal roofs that have been eaten away by sulfur dioxide and acid fumes. Paint peels off the outer walls, only freshly painted homes show any color, but according to residents, that too will last only a few months. Residents also pointed out cracks in the homes that are due to the underground blasts of the mine.
Proceeding east we pass the “Black Mountain” a huge waste dump of slag from the smelter that towers above the surrounding communities. No fence or barrier is present, children play amongst the waste piles unfettered. A lone security guard is barely visible in the distance sitting atop the high point apparently for show only. The mountain is an estimated several square kilometers in size and perhaps reaching heights of 40 meters. Dust from the slag blows into the public roads and communities located nearby.
At least 18,000 people live in the areas immediately adjacent to the facility. As we proceed into the most heavily impacted community, Kankoyo, the extreme poverty of the people is shocking. Open sewage ditches flow throughout the homes, roofs and paints of the homes show evidence of being eaten away by sulfur and acid fumes. Only one type of plant species can tolerate the high acid pollution and is used as hedges between the small homes. Residents are unable to supplement their diets by growing their own small plots of vegetables due to pollution from the smelter.
As our team of community monitors went into the neighborhood to seek locations to sample the fallout from the mine and smelter, we were greeted by residents eager to tell us about their serious health problems. Widespread health problems were reported including: mentally retarded children, eye and sight problems, asthma and bronchitis, skin burning, peeling, rashes and irritation, and stomach sores that they believe are associated with exposure to the air pollution and toxic fallout.
In the Butondo community, 1.5 kilometers from the smelter, residents reported getting hit with high sulfur and acid gas pollution during certain wind conditions. In the area is another mine shaft and a new open pit mine using a ‘portal system’ that is 2 meters from the community boundary. During frequent blasting, the houses are shaken and cracked. People report being thrown from their beds onto the floor when the blasts occur. Women reported that although they can grow some vegetables, when eaten, the acid content of the food causes sores in the digestive track.
The mine has opened huge new acid leaching ponds where copper is leached out of giant pools loosely covered with giant covers. The strong smell of acid is present in the community near these ponds.
We observed small streams that have been turned into larger waterways due to mine waste being pumped into them. This has increased unwanted vegetation in the stream beds, fish kills and toxic dumping in the river where many communities draw their drinking water.
The mine has a huge open waste mountain to the east of town covering many square kilometers. Mine waste in a white powdery slurry is piped through the community to the waste area. Many leaks of the pipe were observed and the white powder waste was blowing freely. In the distance a virtual sandstorm of white dust was observed blowing great distances.
When the smelter began operation during the end of the tour, huge plumes of dark black smoke billowed from the stack at 100% opacity. Odors from the smelter rained down on nearby Konkoyo and the smell of sulfur and acid were sickening causing immediate coughing and sore throats. The taste of acid was present in the mouth within minutes. The tour was concluded due to health concerns and we evacuated the area. Siziwe Khanyile of groundWork who is familiar with other polluting mines and smelters in Rustenburg, SA, observed that the situation in Mufulira was the worst she had ever seen.