Phyllis Omido

Environmental Activist Phyllis Omido.

| Kevin Odit | Nation Media Group

Lead poisoning: Phyllis Omido’s unending battle in Owino Uhuru

With numerous awards under her belt, Phyllis Omido says her work is not done until justice is served.

In 2015, she won the Goldman Environmental Prize, which included Sh5.7 million and a trophy. She was recognised for her campaign against lead poisoning in the Owino Uhuru slums in Jomvu, Mombasa County.

Five years later, she won the 2020 Ethecon Blue Planet Award for her heroic efforts in environmental conservation. In 2021, she was on Time magazine’s annual list of 100 most influential people globally.

But the daring 44-year-old, who took the government head-on when she sued over environmental degradation and the effects of lead on residents of Owino Uhuru village, is yet to achieve her goal.

Owino Uhuru, which sits on 13.5 acres and has more than 3,000 residents, was contaminated by the activities of a smelting company but the affected residents have not been compensated.

Ms Omido says residents continue to suffer from the effects of lead poisoning. Former deputy chief government chemist Wandera Bideru, who conducted tests on 50 blood samples, confirmed in a report that the level of lead in the specimens was extremely high.

Lead batteries

In court documents, he said that in some cases lead levels were so high that he did not expect the persons to be alive. One of the victims had 420ug/dl, which is way higher than the upper limit of 5ug/dl for a child and 10ug/dl for an adult recommended by the World Health Organization.

The factory was established in 2009 to collect used batteries for smelting but was shut down in 2014 after Ms Omido, a former employee, raised the alarm over the negative effects associated with its activities.

The company recycled used lead batteries by smelting them at extremely high temperatures, extracting the lead components, packaging them and exporting them to external markets.

Tests on Ms Omido’s son when he fell ill showed that he had high levels of lead against WHO-recommended levels.

She then raised the alarm over the firm, saying it was exposing residents to lead poisoning.

Two years later, she won a battle in court against the factory owned by foreign tycoons and a Mombasa politician.

But her efforts to get justice have been futile, forcing her to resort to demonstrations.

The environmental activist has invited Owino Uhuru residents to take part in a protest outside the offices of EPZA, next to the Urban Police Station.

Her organisation has notified the police of their intention to hold a peaceful protest.

Residents are set to march from Owino Uhuru to Bangladesh through the Makupa Causeway and the Mombasa central business district to demand compensation.

But Mombasa sub-county Police Commander Joseph Ongaya has blocked the protest, citing security reasons.

Ms Omido has, however, vowed to go ahead with the planned protest.

She insisted the protest organised by her organisation, the Centre for Justice and Environmental Action (CJEA), on February 1 will proceed as planned.

She lamented that despite following the required procedures for a peaceful protest, the police denied the group the right to do so.

"I will not cancel the protest, which is a noble cause to fight for the victims of lead poisoning to get their compensation," she said.

The villagers’ tribulations began in early 2010, a year after the lead-smelting factory began its operations.

Metal Refinery (EPZ) Ltd poisoned the entire village by discharging gaseous and liquid materials into the environment.

For more than a decade, Ms Omido, the founder and executive director of CJEA, has fought for the rights of affected residents.

Amid an ongoing court battle between the government and Owino Uhuru residents over compensation, Ms Omido has refused to give up.

"I will not stop fighting environmental injustice," she said.

In 2016, Ms Omido moved to court on behalf of residents, seeking Sh1.6 billion as compensation for the deaths of their loved ones and ailments associated with lead poisoning.

The money was to be used for medical treatment and compensate families for the deaths that resulted from poisoning.

Private investors

She sued the ministries of Environment and Health, the environment watchdog Nema, the Export Processing Zones Authority and Penguin Paper and Book Company.

In July 2020, a Mombasa court ordered that the government and two private investors pay Sh1.3 billion to residents of Owino Uhuru in Changamwe who were affected by lead poisoning.

In the landmark ruling, Justice Ann Omollo also ordered State agencies responsible for the environment to clean up any remaining lead deposits.

This was followed by celebrations, which were cut short when the State moved to the Court of Appeal to overturn the ruling.

In a notice of appeal, the Attorney-General indicated it was aggrieved by the award and would seek to overturn it at the appellate court.

"Take notice that the AG, being dissatisfied with the whole decision of the Environment and Land Court, intends to appeal to the (Court of Appeal) against the same," the notice said.

The appellate court temporarily suspended the implementation of the lower court’s ruling pending the outcome of the appeal.

But Ms Omido said the appeal has delayed justice, showing that the government had failed to appreciate her work for the people.

She said Kenya has a long way to go in environmental conservation and social justice.

Ethecon Blue Planet, a German-based organisation said in a statement that it honoured Ms Omido because of her actions in defending environmental and human rights regardless of the consequences on her security.

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