May 26, 2015
This week’s Environmental Leaders profile features Phyllis Omido of Mombasa, Kenya. After learning her own breast milk was making her baby sick—and realizing her child wasn’t the only one suffering from lead poisoning—Phyllis Omido galvanized the community in Mombasa to shut down the smelter that was exposing workers to dangerous chemicals. Omido is also the recipient of The 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize for Africa.
Phyllis Omido was a young single mother when she was hired to develop an environmental impact report for a local metal refinery. She found that the plant’s proximity to the local community left residents vulnerable to dangerous chemicals—and that the plant was likely operating under illegally obtained permits. Her report recommended closing the smelter and relocating, but management dismissed the recommendations and removed Omido from the project.
Soon after, Omido’s infant son became violently ill. Tests for malaria, typhoid, and other likely culprits all came back negative. Following a suggestion that it could be lead poisoning, doctors tested the baby’s blood and found acutely high levels of lead, which had likely been passed along via his mother’s breast milk.
Her son’s medical bills quickly ballooned to more than $2,000, an insurmountable amount for Omido. The company paid her bills in exchange for her silence, but Omido felt a responsibility to the community. She founded the Center of Justice, Governance, and Environmental Action (CJGEA) and set on her quest to bring justice to the plant workers and their families.
Omido reached out to residents, often accompanying illiterate parents on hospital visits to help them explain the situation to doctors. She obtained test results that showed alarmingly high levels of lead among local children. Soil samples showed lead levels increased almost tenfold from 2008 to 2009, when the plant became operational.
Equipped with hard data, Omido went back to the plant’s management and policymakers to shut down the smelter. Her plea fell on deaf ears. Instead, she was charged with inciting violence and thrown in jail. She received violent threats, and was brutally attacked by two armed men.
Scared but undeterred, she ramped up the pressure with letter writing campaigns and peaceful street protests. In January 2014, facing mounting community pressure and tireless campaigning by Omido and CJGEA, the smelter ceased its operations.
Since the plant’s closure, policymakers have toured the former smelter site and pledged to clean up the contamination. Omido is working to hold them to that commitment, building a court case based on Kenya’s constitutional mandate to provide a clean and safe environment for its citizens.
To learn more about Phyllis and her work visit www.goldmanprize.org/phyllis.
You can read more about The Goldman Environmental Prize and this year’s winners in this recent Eco News Network article. http://econewsnetwork.org/2015/04/goldman-environmental-prize-winners/
To read last weeks Environmental Leaders profile on Marilyn Baptiste click here.
Photo provided by The Goldman Environmental Prize.