Impacts of copper mining on people and nature

Although few in number, the multinational mining companies that are earning billion-dollar profits in Zambia have had a massive impact on its environment and people. On the bright side, the copper mining industry records the country’s largest export earnings and has generated more than 90,000 jobs for Zambians today.

For almost 100 years, Zambia has been highly dependent on copper and the mining industry, and the country is living proof that progress leaves its mark on both the environment and people’s health. Land degradation. Increased deforestation. Water and air pollution from particles of sulphuric acid, which severely affect those residing near mines. These are some of the main concerns of The Environmental Council of Zambia.

‘People can’t live here’

In August 2015, 1,800 local residents from Shimulala and nearby villages in Zambia sued the mining giant Vedanta Resources and their subsidiary KCM, claiming that copper extraction from the Konkola mine – the largest copper mine in Africa – is polluting the local waterways and causing catastrophic damage to their health and livelihoods.

According to a leaked confidential internal report commissioned from Canadian pollution control experts, Vedanta Resources’ giant mine in Zambia’s Copperbelt region has been spilling sulphuric acid and other toxic chemicals into the rivers, streams and underground aquifers used for drinking water near the mining town of Chingola.

“It is not possible to live in this area any longer,” said one resident, Leo Moulenga, in an interview with The Guardian in August 2015.

“The ground is contaminated, our crop yield has dropped. In the future we don’t think people will be able to live here. It is becoming uninhabitable.”

According to the Blacksmith Institute, an American environmental research centre that monitors Chingola province, 93,000 tons of industrial waste are produced in the area every year, most of which is dumped in the Kafue River. The Blacksmith Institute’s investigations have concluded that the primary polluter is the Konkola copper mine, and the consequences are dire: The pollution constitutes a direct and imminent health risk for both human and animal life, and could lead to outbreaks of cholera if not halted. Allegations of environmental and human rights violations are not unusual in the Zambian
mining industry.

Health risk for humans

In 2008, a malfunctioning pump at the Mopani mine led to acidic residue polluting the nearby water network that services the surrounding communities with drinking water. Local clinics registered over 1,000 residents affected by the spill, who complained of abdominal pains, diarrhoea and vomiting. While the owners, mining companies Glencore and First Quantum, maintained that this was a tragic accident, critics claimed that the companies were neglecting their environmental responsibility.

The government legally charged and fined a mine manager and three other employees at Mopani Copper Mines for the pollution of the Mufulira water system, saying the company polluted the water supply system for 800 residents in the small mining city of Mufulira. At that time, mines and mineral development minister Kalombo Mwansa began reviewing legislation to attach stiffer penalties to violations by companies and officials, according to Business and Human Rights.

It’s in the air and water

The mining industry uses sulphuric acid in the extraction and treatment of copper. The extraction processes are called heap and situ leaching; during these processes, particles react with each other to create acidic mists that not only harm people’s skin, eyes and lungs, but also destroy crops, deteriorate the quality of the land, and damage nearby buildings. The acid dust both smells and tastes bad.

“We took a sample of the water, which was cloudy and had a foul smell. A few minutes later the colour of the water turned bright orange, and the smell was overpowering,” a BBC journalist, Nomsa Maseko, recently reported from Hippo Pool village by the Kafue River. Several epidemiological studies have suggested a correlation between exposure to inorganic acid mists containing sulphuric acid and an increased incidence of laryngeal cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has concluded that ”occupational exposure to strong inorganic mists containing sulphuric acid is carcinogenic for humans.”

Nevertheless, sulphuric acid is still used with little concern for the people affected through air and water pollution, and the environment and animal life continue to be severely affected by copper extraction in Zambia.