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A Toxics-Free Future


Residents of a Kenyan village awarded $12 million in a lawsuit over lead poisoning

Phyllis Omido walks through the village of Owino Uhuru. She has been keeping a close eye on the lead exposure that has plagued this settlement since a nearby smelter began operations in 2007.

By Bukola Adebayo, CNN

A Kenyan community whose children and residents were sickened by lead from a battery smelting plant has been awarded $12 million (1.3 billion Kenyan shillings) following a civil lawsuit.

The court ordered the government to clean up Owino Uhuru, a village on the outskirts of Mombosa, within four months and gave the relevant agencies 90 days to pay out the compensation money.

Thursday's ruling comes after years of grassroots work by environmental activist Phyllis Omido, who launched a legal challenge against the government and the smelting plant owners, accusing them of violating of Kenyan environmental and human rights law and exposing the community to lead poisoning.
Omido told CNN that Thursday's ruling is a validation of her and the village resident's resolve to receive justice.

"Many people did not believe me and kept telling me what I was saying about lead poisoning was made up, but now the court has seen the community was exposed to this danger," Omido said.

Long road to victory

Omido worked at the lead-acid battery recycling plant, Metal Refinery EPZ, as a community relations manager in 2009.

She quit after three months when her baby became sick and doctors found lead in her son's blood test they said he might have ingested from her breast milk.

"My son was sick but I was also not feeling good. Our eyes at the factory would be watering and the smell from the factory was pungent. It got me thinking about what they were producing there," Omido told CNN.

"After I quit, I noticed that people in the environment had the same issues and decided to get people tested."

She kick-started years of grassroots demonstration for the factory's closure and investigation into residents' allegations of health problems caused by the smelting factory's activities.

The company shut down in 2014 eight years after it began operation nearby the village and only when Kenya made the exportation of scrap metal illegal. Dozens of residents tested positive following a 2015 assessment by the government and in some tests conducted showed blood lead levels that were deemed dangerous by the Kenyan Centers for Disease Control.

There is still no known safe level of exposure to lead, according to the World Health Organization.

Campaign against environmental abuses

Omido was named one of the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize winners, and she has been dubbed the "East African Erin Brockovich."

Her campaign through the Center for Justice, Governance and Environmental Action she founded in 2014 to tackle environmental abuses in Kenya has led to the shuttering of at least 10 toxic waste smelters in the East African country in the last five years. The activist says there is more work to be done.
Omido said hundreds of children suspected to have been impacted by the presence of toxic smelters in the village are yet to be tested, according to her organization's assessment.

"The most important thing now is to test all the children and ensure that those affected have access to medication all of them on medication and to clean the environment so the community can live in a place that is safe for then," she told CNN.