Mining giant Glencore faces human rights complaint over toxic spill in Chad

The UK government has accepted a human rights complaint against mining and commodities giant Glencore regarding a toxic wastewater spill in Chad, where dozens of villagers – among them children – claim they suffered severe burns, skin lesions and sickness after contact with contaminated water.

The complaint, brought by three human rights groups on behalf of affected communities, alleges environmental abuses and social engagement failures by the FTSE-100 company in relation to two spillages, the wastewater spill and an alleged oil spill, both in 2018.

Officials at the Department for International Trade, which monitors whether UK-based companies implement OECD guidelines for responsible business, decided the issues raised “merit[ed] further examination”. This case marks the first time that Glencore has faced an OECD complaint in the UK.

In September 2018, a wastewater basin holding a crude oil by-product collapsed at Glencore UK’s operations in Badila, southern Chad. Some 85m litres of runoff – equivalent in volume to 34 Olympic-sized swimming pools – flooded fields and the local river, which local people use for drinking, bathing and washing.

At least 50 people reported burns, skin lesions, sickness and diarrhoea after bathing in or using the contaminated river water in the weeks after the leak. Many of those harmed were children, some of whom were admitted to hospital. One 13-year-old boy was unable to move his body for a year after swimming in the river, which doctors attributed to the “crude oil burns”. Livestock drinking from the river also died, according to the complaint.

Residents claim the wastewater basin had been leaking for weeks before it collapsed, but Glencore failed to properly address the problem or to warn local residents about the impending danger. They also say Glencore has still not acknowledged the harm caused or provided remedy. A few weeks after the wastewater incident, residents also reported an oil pipe leak, which is contested by the company.

“The UK’s decision to accept the complaint provides an opportunity for those harmed at Glencore’s operations to finally be heard and to find remedy for the harms they suffered,” said Anneke Van Woudenberg, executive director of the human rights group Rights and Accountability in Development (Raid), which was among the groups that filed the complaint. Raid published a detailed report about the alleged abuses in March last year.

“For more than a year we have tried, along with organisations in Chad, to get Glencore UK to appropriately investigate these claims and to compensate those affected. And although they’ve made promises, none of them have resulted in any remedy, nor has there been an independent investigation into what happened. This is why we launched the complaint.

“No community, whether they are in a remote area of Chad or elsewhere, should have to wait more than two and a half years for a company to investigate whether its toxic spill caused injury, especially when it involves so many children.”

The National Contact Point (NCP), the UK body which oversees the implementation of OECD guidelines for multinational companies, will now mediate between the parties. If that fails, the NCP will examine whether the violations highlighted by the human rights groups occurred and will publish its findings.

In a statement to the Guardian, Glencore said: “Glencore has participated in the UK NCP’s initial assessment of the complaint and acknowledges their decision that the issues relating to the 2018 wastewater incident merit further examination.

“We also note that UK NCP’s decision to further examine aspects of the complaint is not a finding against Glencore UK or a determination by the UK NCP that Glencore UK has acted inconsistently with the guidelines.

“Glencore is committed to operating in a safe and responsible manner in accordance with all applicable laws and regulations. We actively manage and mitigate any impacts our operations may have on local communities and the environment. We recognise that our presence can deliver sustainable benefits to those living around our operations and to the national economy of Chad. We transparently report on our performance and welcome the opportunity to build and strengthen relationships with civil society representatives.”