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Landmark Supreme Court ruling opens up overseas claims against UK-based corporations

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A recent landmark decision by the UK’s Supreme Court has ruled that Vedanta Resources, a UK-based mining business and its Zambian subsidiary Konkola Copper Mines (KCM), can face legal action and claims bought by Zambian citizens, despite the companies’ long-standing argument that any such claims should be bought in Zambia itself.

The claim in question is being made by 1,826 residents of Zambia’s the Chingola region, who are claiming that effluent and toxic runoff from the regions Nchanga opencast mine has polluted their water supplies. The Nchanga site is the world’s second largest opencast mine, with facilities for the extraction and processing of copper spread over a 30 km/sq area. Local residents claim that they have suffered continual pollution of their water resources from the Kafue River since Vendanta bought KCM in 2004. They say that chemicals have polluted the river, which is a prime water source for over 40,000 people, including heavy metals such as lead and cadmium. One incident of copper sulphate and acid poisoning in 2006 was bad enough turned the river bright blue.

The Zambian claimants say that the pollution and poisoning has led to many of them suffering from chronic illnesses and early deaths. One of the main campaigners for the claimants, James Nyasulu from Chingola, welcomed the decision that will finally allow victims of pollution to seek justice:

Their livelihoods, land and health have been irreparably damaged by pollution which has rendered the River Kafue completely polluted and unable to support aquatic life.”

A spokesperson for Vedanta and KCM said the judgment was a procedural one relating to the jurisdiction of the case. “It is not a judgment on the merits of the claims,” the spokesperson said. “Vedanta and KCM will defend themselves against any such claims at the appropriate time.” The Supreme Court decision opens the doors to a range of other cases to be brought against parent companies based in the UK for the actions of their subsidiaries overseas. Cases against Royal Dutch Shell, Unilever and BHP Billiton over allegations of polluting communities in developing countries have been awaiting a decision in the Vedanta case before they can proceed.

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