Konkola under siege
Lusaka – Pressure continues to pile on Zambia’s Konkola Copper Mines, the country’s largest copper and cobalt producer, with recent accusations of non-tax compliance and water pollution.
The company is already embroiled in a tiff with the government over its proposal to lay off 1 500 workers, with President Michael Sata threatening to revoke its licence should it go ahead with the planned job cuts.
A subsidiary of Vedanta Resources Plc, which has operations in India and Namibia, among other operations across the globe, has been dragged into serious problems with the Zambian government after it indicated plans to lay off 1 529 of its more than 5 000 workers in preference for mechanised operations.
Early in June, Konkola Copper Mines (KCM) sought to lay off 2 000 workers citing dwindling copper prices on the international market and other related costs ‑ an intention that met resistance from the Zambian government, which seeks to create more employment for its citizens in fulfilment of its pre-2011 election promise.
Recently, Konkola Copper Mines CEO, Kishore Kumar, whose work permit was revoked in the latest twist in the row over job cuts, told journalists that the company had plans to lay off 1 529 workers as it seeks to mechanise its operations in its quest to maximise operations and offset other operational costs.
Later President Sata directed the mining company not to lay off any of its workers but instead find ways of embracing the affected workers.
However, after KCM insisted on laying off workers, President Sata warned the company of possible annulment of its mining licence if it flouted the directive. Kumar ‑ as quoted by local media ‑ reacted to the warning by describing the President’s threats as “mere rhetoric” ‑ a sentiment that angered the authorities.
Despite the focused plans to expand its operations in Zambia, KCM has riled authorities on various aspects that threaten its continued operations in Zambia despite its immense contribution to the country’s job creation and copper production credentials.
Kumar last week allegedly fled Zambia after Home Affairs Minister Edgar Lungu demanded a meeting with him to discuss his “rhetoric” jibe targeted at President Sata.
“Mr Kumar has fled the country after realising the gravity of his careless, disrespectful and arrogant statements against President Sata. He acted real yellow [cowardly] after talking down on our Head of State initially,” said Minister Lungu.
Minister Lungu added that since Kumar left the country when government wanted him to clarify certain important matters, he should consider himself not wanted in Zambia at the moment.
Kumar’s work permit has been revoked and he has since been declared a prohibited immigrant, though he has indicated willingness to return to Zambia by November 28, 2013.
“Since he has left on his own accord, the matter of him being in the country is closed. But we will consider whether he will be allowed to come back or not,” Minister Lungu said, while urging other multi-nationals to take a cue from Kumar and respect not only the laws of the land but the country’s leadership.
“Zambia is a sovereign country. We got our independence almost 50 years ago and right now we have an elected President, If you insult him, you insult those that elected him and the law shall deal with you regardless of whatever investment you have brought in and Mr Kumar should have known this before he shot his mouth,” added Minister Lungu.
Zambia is one of the most advanced and most tolerant countries in Africa as seen by various international ratings that have placed it highly, but “that will not mean people can walk in and out and look down on us. We have laws”.
Earlier, Labour and Social Security Minister Fackson Shamenda expressed consternation at Kumar, whom he tried to reason with regarding the job cut plans at the Indian-owned company.
The parent company of KCM, Vedanta, is valued at US$3.8 billion on the London Stock Exchange and it continues to expand in other parts of the world.
Mines Minister Christopher Yaluma also added his voice to the events at KCM and that the company has been evading tax with the country’s revenue authority, a move he regretted.
On the other hand, government is concerned with KCM’s continued pollution activities, which have remained unabated for the fifth time since it began operations.
According to Minister of Local Government and Housing, Emerine Kabanshi, the pollution of water has resulted in the closure of two water treatment plants for Nkana Water and Sewerage Company and warned the mining company that government will deal with it if it fails to stop the excessive pollution levels which have affected Mwambashi Dam in Kalulushi and Mutipa stream in Chingola in the Copperbelt province.
Emerine said the government will be left with no option but to shut down KCM’s operations at their tailings leach plant until the company puts up remedial measures to protect people’s lives and there are plans by the government not to allow a situation where mining companies continue to deliberately fail to meet the environmental regulations.
Nkana Water and Sewerage Company has temporarily suspended water supply to its customers following reports of water contamination in the Kafue River in Chingola. More than 120 000 people use the Kafue River for water and other activities to sustain their livelihoods.
The company supplies water to Kitwe, Kalulushi and Chambishi townships. KCM, the major mining company in Chingola, is largely blamed for the pollution of the Kafue River.
Accusations against KCM over water pollution were raised in 2006 and then later two years ago which has affected over 20 000 Chingola residents. Residents have complained against water pollution in Mushishima River. The company was later fined US$2 million by a local court for polluting the water and has been warned of severe consequences against similar charges.
KCM corporate affairs manager, Jacqueline Kabeta, has attributed the water pollution to a leak in one of the age-old Preg tanks, at the Tailings Leach Plant (TLP) at Nchanga in Chingola, some of which seeped into the Kafue River.
Environmental watchdog, Zambia Environmental Management Agency, plans to make public the extent of the pollution in the Chingola area.
The Earth and Environmental Organisation has challenged the Environmental Council of Zambia (ECZ) to prosecute Konkola Copper Mines as the spillage of acid into the river was not accidental and it was an offence to damage the environment.
Lovemore Kapeya Muma, executive director of the Earth Organisation Zambia, said in a statement that the pollution of the river was as result of KCM’s failure to implement the Nchanga Mine Environment Plan, which it inherited from the Anglo-American Corp ‑ the previous owners of the mine.
“Our concern is mostly associated with the discharge of totally dissolved substances and totally suspended substances into the Kafue River and on 17 October 2010, we brought it to the attention of KCM, who promised to get back to us but to no avail,” Muma, said.
The Citizens for a Better Environment (CBE), a Copperbelt-based environmental watchdog, has also called for thorough investigations into the cause of pollution in Mwambashi stream in Kalulushi.
Nkana Water and Sewerage Company in conjunction with the University of Zambia (UNZA) School of Mines in the past collected water samples from Mwambashi River and laboratory tests revealed a high presence of heavy metals and that more investigations should be carried out to establish whether the pollution was caused by mining companies or it is a natural occurrence.