The Observer view on global mining regulation (The Guardian – August 2, 2015)

The suffering of communities in Zambia’s copper mining region highlights the need to create a global regulatory regime

The appalling suffering of villagers living close to the mining town of Chingola, in Zambia’s copperbelt region, whose water supplies have been dangerously polluted by leaks of sulphuric acid and other toxic chemicals, is both avoidable and unacceptable. As we report today, the Chingola pollution and associated environmental damage has led to serious health problems for those affected, such as potential organ failure, cancers and permanent disabilities, as well as failed crops, loss of earnings and livelihoods.

This continuing toll on life and well-being is wholly avoidable, in part because the problems associated with Vedanta Resources’ giant mine at Chingola have been common knowledge for some years.

A scientist whistleblower familiar with company activities claimed operating and maintenance standards were consistently poor from 2005, when the Vedanta-owned subsidiary, KCM, bought the plant. “There have been heavy spillages and massive leakages. Acid has been leaking all over the place… No effort has been made to correct this scenario,” the whistleblower said.

Avoidable, too, because public attention has been drawn to the Chingola situation in the past. In April, Zambia’s supreme court upheld a 2011 high court judgment that found Vedanta (KCM) guilty of water pollution in 2006. But compensation payments to 2,000 claimants who said they suffered liver and kidney damage and other illnesses remain uncertain. Separate proceedings against London stock exchange-listed Vedanta began in the high court in London last week. A demonstration is planned outside the company’s AGM in London tomorrow, part of a “global day of action” by activists protesting at the activities of Vedanta and its subsidiaries in Africa and Goa, India.

The Chingola case is unacceptable, in part because it seems so familiar. To a limited degree, some mining companies and the extractive industries’ national bodies have moved to clean up their act in recent years. Public awareness of issues arising directly and indirectly from mining in its various forms is greater than it once was, as the passionate debate in Britain about fracking has shown.

But that said, the continuing problems linked to mining – human health and rights, climate change, deforestation, environmental pollution, water resources, and adverse impacts on biodiversity – are among the most fundamental challenges of our age. Not nearly enough is being done by mining companies or government regulators to mitigate them.

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