(Photo: Jacob Kushner)

The Single Mom Who Shut Down a Toxic Plant Readies for Round Two: Making Them Pay

Phyllis Omido receives the Goldman Environmental Prize Monday, but the battle for justice is only beginning.
Apr 20, 2015· 7 MIN READ
Jacob Kushner reports on foreign investment and human rights in Africa. His work has appeared in NewYorker.com, Newsweek, Vice, Foreign Policy, and NationalGeographic.com.

In the coastal city of Mombasa, Kenya, a rogue lead-smelting factory has left a path of destruction in its wake: at least three dead workers, hundreds of failed pregnancies and stillborns, and more than two dozen children suffering lifelong health effects from breathing in polluted air and stepping in toxic runoff.

The damage might have continued were it not for one Kenyan woman who fought to close down the plant and save an entire community—even amid death threats and an attempted kidnapping.

Today, 36-year-old Phyllis Omido is being honored with the Goldman Environmental Prize, given each year to six exceptional individuals—one from each continent—who undertake “sustained and significant efforts to protect and enhance the natural environment, often at great personal risk.”

The prize is the beginning of yet another journey for Omido: She plans to use the $175,000 award to sue the government agencies that knew about the problems at the smelting plant but did nothing.

“As long as there is no justice, we will keep pushing,” she says.

It’s a hot morning in mid-March as Omido drives us from downtown Mombasa, an urban port and industrial hub, to the city’s outskirts. As we reach the gates of the now-closed factory, Metal Refineries EPZ Ltd., she turns into the narrow dirt alleyways of Owino Uhuru, a neighborhood directly adjacent to the factory. Mud-brick houses with small yards are packed densely together, and young children can be seen walking around with burns on their legs. A man walks with a girl who looks to be two or three years old with a rash on her forehead—a symptom, Omido says, of lead poisoning.

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It was here in 2009 that Omido was offered a position as a human resources administrator at Metal Refineries, an Indian-owned factory that had opened the previous year and processed used batteries to extract and recycle the lead.

Born in the rural village of Bunyore in western Kenya, Omido graduated from Nairobi University with a degree in business administration and spent more than a decade handling human resources and other administrative assignments for industrial companies in Mombasa. From the outset, she knew something was wrong at the Metal Refineries factory.

The fumes—you could not actually breathe in that place,” she recalls. “It was very pungent. It’s like sulfur. Your eyes would be watering. Even the people passing on the road would smell that.”

Three months into her tenure, Omido’s two-year-old son, King David Jeremiah, became sick with a high fever and severe diarrhea. He spent a month in a local hospital before doctors diagnosed him with lead poisoning—presumably the result of breast-feeding by Omido, who had been exposed to lead in the factory. “I cried for days, because it was me that had made him sick,” Omido later told Emma Daly, the communications director at Human Rights Watch. “Immediately I knew I was never, ever going back there.”

Omido quit her job and began writing letters to Kenya’s government agencies responsible for workplace and environmental safety. Her hope was to shut down the factory, or at least force it to adopt more stringent pollution abatement measures. She also wanted the company to compensate the 400 or so workers and the 3,000 residents of Owino Uhuru affected by its toxic output. Omido says she regularly witnessed the release of untreated water used to wash the batteries directly into the community. When the factory heated battery materials to extreme temperatures to separate the lead from the other materials, dangerous particles flew up and out of the smokestacks at the top of the plant, contaminating the surrounding air.

Like Omido’s son, local employees suffered too. She remembers the Indian managers entering the factory wearing protective gear from head to toe. Kenyan workers, though, were forced to handle battery acid and other toxic materials with no protection. As a white-collar worker with a college degree, Omido was financially stable enough to quit her job when she learned of the hazardous effects on her health. Many workers on the factory floor—most of whom earned about $3.50 per day, she says—didn’t have that option.

Omido engaging with community members and former factory workers in Owino Uhuru. (Photo: Courtesy Goldman Environmental Prize)

She recounts the story of two brothers, both employees at the factory, who pooled their savings each month and sent half to support their elderly mother in nearby Kilifi. They struggled to survive on what was left, and their inability to quit their hazardous jobs cost one of them his life. In June of 2010, Karissa Charo, the older of the two, died at the age of 32 from complications brought on by lead poisoning, Omido says.

But her letters to the government were met with silence. “I thought that the systems would assist the people,” Omido says. “But nothing happened. That’s when I realized the system does not work for the poor people.”

A young boy with a leg burn caused by lead poisoning.
(Photo: Jacob Kushner)

In early 2010, after several more months of Omido writing letters without any response, an incident in the neighborhood reignited the urgency: A young boy was horribly burned by acid drainage from the factory while playing soccer. “He kicked the ball, it went into drainage. He stepped into it and his whole foot was eaten out,” Omido recalls.

She decided there was no time left to wait for government officials to take action. In February 2010, Omido organized two public protests calling for government action against the company. They drew significant media attention, and perhaps as a result, she was arrested and charged with staging an illegal protest during a third protest on April 25, 2012.

The legal battle that followed lasted eight months. But Omido had a solid defense: According to the Basel Convention, of which Kenya is a signatory, factories like Metal Refineries must be 50 kilometers from homes. But the smelter was less than five meters away from some residents of Owino Uhuru living just on the other side of the factory's 12-inch-thick concrete walls. Omido says corrupt Kenyan police officers lied on the witness stand, asserting the factory was several kilometers away.

A 2009 government report by Kenya’s Ministry of Environment had found that the factory was violating the law and endangering the health and safety of workers, after which the factory stopped production. But after a few weeks, it reopened. Omido says the only significant safety measure the factory owners took during the closing turned out to be disastrous: Instead of letting runoff stream directly into the community next door, they dug a borehole and directed the water there instead, where it polluted the water table. “Instead of going into the community [grounds], it’s going into the water supply,” Omido says, incredulous.

Eventually, she was able to raise enough money to test 15 children for lead poisoning. All but one, who had only recently moved into the neighborhood, tested for unsafe levels. Still Nairobi took no action.

Things began to change once media coverage increased and Human Rights Watch got involved, supporting Omido’s cause and eventually producing a documentary about her fight to close the plant.

In March 2014, the factory shut down for good. But it left behind a toxic legacy: contaminated water and prior inhalation of toxins continue to plague residents, some of whom may suffer for the rest of their lives from brain damage including low IQ, infertility, and other disabilities brought on by lead poisoning. Children are especially vulnerable.

They aren’t alone. Toxic pollution from mining, lead smelters, and industrial dumps affects the health of more than 125 million people worldwide, according to Human Rights Watch, which began supporting Omido’s activism in 2011. (The following year, Omido founded her own local NGO, the Centre for Justice, Governance and Environmental Action.)

Omido at the grave of a three-month-old baby who died as a result of
lead poisoning from the factory nearby (Photo: Courtesy Goldman
Environmental Prize)

Making our way through Owino Uhuru, we walk past a small clearing with piles of dirt and some twigs. Omido stops, pointing to a small wooden cross sticking up from dry earth. It marks the grave of an infant, born to a 26-year-old resident, who died a week after birth. It is one of what Omido estimates to be 300 infants who were stillborn or who died shortly after birth—victims, she says, of commonly known maternal and infant health effects brought on by lead poisoning.

In the six years the factory operated, there were so many miscarriages and infant deaths that just transporting the bodies to burial sites became a burdensome cost to the community. Omido explains that residents instead buried their children on this patch near their homes. “I don’t normally walk here, because the stench is very strong,” she says.

Later, we pass Omido’s former home. In 2009, during the height of her activism against the company, armed men attempted to abduct her and her son. This is the first time she has returned.

“It was around seven in the evening when they came on each side of me and showed me the guns,” she recalls. “I thought they were robbers.”

But one of the men said something that made her realize this wasn’t a robbery.
“ ‘Why are you fighting with men in this society?’ So they knew what I was doing.” The men took Omido and her son out of their house, apparently to kidnap them—or worse. But headlights illuminated the dark street, and a car approached. Omido heard the driver call out, “
Is everything all right?” The would-be kidnappers fled.

Frightened by the incident, Omido fled that same night with her son to Kilifi, a coastal town several hours north of Mombasa, where they reside today.

After she tells me the story, Omido starts the car and drives into the city. She points out a building she says belonged to a Kenyan politician who was an investor in the lead factory. She says he pressured officials to ignore her call for change and threatened residents of Owino Uhuru with eviction for their role in her fight.

Once, during a public protest, she confronted the politician to his face. “I told him we were going to take his building and sell it to buy medicine for the children.” She says he called out to some security guards to beat this woman up—she has a big mouth.” Omido fled on the back of a motorcycle.

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This month, Omido is touring Washington, D.C., and San Francisco as part of her recognition for the Goldman Prize. Soon, she’ll return to Kenya to begin the next step in her fight: suing three government agencies for failing to investigate the plant as required by law.

“Why did it have to take all this for them to shut down the smelter?” she asks. “They licensed and kept it running for five years. We want these people to come to court and admit it.”

Omido is now working to gather as much evidence as possible so that no one involved with the factory or responsible for keeping it running escapes prosecution. In January, she convinced the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to take blood samples from residents of Uhuru Owino, as well as from a control group of people living in a different location, to establish the discrepancy. She’s also working with a group of students from Pwani University in Kilifi to seek out medical records and survey the entire community to record every miscarriage, infant death, sickness, and other related event that community members have suffered.

“We need accountability. We need justice for this community,” Omido says as we part ways on a bustling Mombasa street. “We want them to stand there, face us, and [answer] us: ‘Why didn’t you act?’ ”