By MWAPE MWENYA
SUSPECTED sulphur dioxide emissions allegedly being discharged from Mopani Copper Mines in Mufulira is causing panic among residents. It is suspected that the emissions could be the reason why many are experiencing health problems, such as respiratory infections.
The discharged commonly known as ‘centre’ by most residents is manly experienced in mining areas that still use traditional or out-dated technology for industrial processing.
The most affected inhabitants are those from Kankoyo, an area which is about 10 kilometres from the central district. The township has been in existence for over 60 years.
Residents will have no option but to relocate to safer environments, alleging that the fumes emitted by the mining firm are affecting their lives.
Sixty Eight-year-old, Damon Kachusha who has lived in Kankoyo for 38 years said “Houses in this area were constructed for miners in the early 1930s. Regrettably the emissions from the processing plant are located closer to the people”.
Mr Kachusha suspects two of his sons might have died after inhaling emissions from Mopani. He said the emissions might have contributed to the high number of premature deaths especially for people who have respiratory conditions like asthma and bronchitis.
Ednah Daka, 68 has been experiencing terrible nose bleeding each time Mopani releases the sulphur dioxide emissions into the environment. Nose bleeding has also affected Evelyn Kalikwe’s son, who at times become unconscious for about an hour every time sulphur dioxide is emitted.
Youths on the other hand have also complained of allegedly failing medical examinations which they are subjected to for them to be employed due to chest problems which they strongly suspect are caused by emissions.
These and many more complaints have made Kankoyo residents to opt for relocation or improved quality air by Mopani.
According to a study by the Bureau of Community and Environmental Health, sulphur dioxide gas has a strong odour which affects the human respiratory system and aggravates circulatory diseases.
The gas is caused by stationary sources such as fertiliser manufactures, power plants, refineries, metal smelters and other industrial processers.
People get exposed to emissions when they inevitably inhale the fumes in the air especially those who live near industries which generate sulphur dioxide.
A medical doctor at Kitwe General Hospital who sought anonymity said inhaling sulphur dioxide causes irritation in the nose, throat and lungs which in most cases result in coughing and shortness of breath.
He said long-term exposure to sulphur dioxide even at lower concentration results in temporary loss of smell, headache, nausea and dizziness, and long-term exposure may lead to decreased fertility in both males and females.
Though the doctor could not confirm any deaths arising from these allegations, he said asthmatic individuals, the elderly and those with heart or lung disease are very sensitive to effects of sulphur dioxide even at low concentration.
And director of environment, public health and community services at Mufulira City Council Kasonde Chisanga said sulphur dioxide emissions have also had adverse effects on land and vegetation.
Ms Chisanga said when sulphur dioxide combines with moisture in the atmosphere it forms sulphuric acid, the main component of acid rain which affects plants. In the case of Kankoyo, the area has been disadvantage from farming due to the emissions.
Meanwhile Citizens for a Better Environment (CBE) executive director Peter Sinkamba said Government should compel mining companies to operate within the confines of the law to avoid endangering people’s lives.
The CBE has been working in pollution-prone areas in Mufulira to educate communities on the dangers of exposing themselves to sulphur dioxide emissions. The organisation calls for concerted efforts from various stakeholders to help communities understand the causes of pollution and how they can possibly avoid it.
“Government will not tolerate mining companies which are endangering people’s lives. For example the mine was established in 1937 which Mopani took over in 2000 has been using old technology which has been difficult to capture sulphur dioxide emissions,” Minister of Mines, Energy and Water Development Christopher Yaluma said.
The minister is, however, happy that the company is in the process of setting up a modern smelter processing plant which will be completed by April this year and will be capturing 97 percent of emissions.
Mr Yaluma said Government attaches great importance to the health needs of its citizens and will compel all mining firms operating in the country to contain and control pollution.
“Creating employment at the risk of people is unacceptable, even the loss of one life shall not be condoned. The case of Kankoyo and many other affected areas is a sad situation. We are expecting to see change very soon,” he said.
Under the Zambia Environmental Management Agency (ZEMA) new mining firms are subjected to the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) regulation of 1997.
ZEMA principal information and communications officer Irene Chipili said the EIA is a systematic review conducted to identify negative and positive environmental impact and put in measures to address them before any development could take place.
The EIA came into being in 1997 and before then, Ms Chipili said it has been difficult for companies which were formed earlier to comply with the required standards.
As for Old facilities such as Mopani and other old mining companies on the Copper belt ZEMA are subjected to the Environmental Management Plan (EMP) as they were set up before EIA.
The EMP requires long and short term commitment of how companies will address sulphur dioxide emissions and other environmental issues.
Other than the EMP, ZEMA also uses the Environmental Management Act number 12 of 2011and a statutory instrument number 112 of 2013 which provides the institution with the regime for licensing.
She said Mopani has a problem with complying and becoming environmentally-friendly due to the old technology it is using.
Ms Chipili said it is difficult to ascertain health impacts arising from exposure to emissions as affected communities do not regularly seek medical check-ups and this poses a challenge to the Ministry of Health to come up with a plan of conducting health check-ups in pollution prone areas.
Mopani has invested over K2.3billion to upgrade Mufulira Smelter Plant that will address the legacy of emissions. Upgrading the smelter will help reduce emissions by 97 percent in line with the international operational standards.
Although the smelter at the mining company was built in 1937 little has been done to maintain or update its processes in line with accepted international standards.
“Since inception in 2000, Mopani is committed to upgrading the smelter to comply with international standards. One option involved closing the processing plant to complete the works earlier but this would have resulted in 900 job losses at that time,” mining firm public relations manager Cephas Sinyangwe said.
The project was divided into three phases. The first two phases involved replacement of the existing electric furnace and was completed in 2007 and 2009 while the third and final phase is underway and is scheduled to be completed by April this year.
“Other than reducing the level of sulphur dioxide emissions, upgrading of the smelter has generated over 400 jobs for local people, businesses have been boosted because the project gives priority to local suppliers,” Mr Sinyangwe said.
He said the project will also improve safety for employees and the community and a more sustainable environment.
What remains to be answered is whether Mopani Copper Mines will compensate affected families as part of its social corporate responsibility policy.
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