Vedanta can be sued in England by Zambian villagers over pollution concerns, rules UK Supreme Court

The Supreme Court in the United Kingdom has ruled that villagers in Zambia can sue mining giant Vedanta in British courts over alleged pollution by a copper mine in the African country, Reuters reported on Wednesday.

The Anil Agarwal-led company had delisted from the London Stock Exchange last year but is headquartered in the UK, according to its website. The company on Wednesday said in a statement that the judgement pertains to procedure and does not reflect the merit of the allegations. “Vedanta and KCM [Konkola Copper Mines] will defend themselves against any such claims at the appropriate time,” it said.

More than 1,800 Zambian villagers are party to a suit that alleges that pollution from the Nchanga Copper Mine, owned by Vedanta subsidiary Konkola Copper Mines, has destroyed their lands and hurt their livelihood. They have alleged that toxic effluents from the plant have being dirtying their water and destroying farmlands since 2005.

In May 2016, a lower court in the UK had decided that the case could be pursued in England. Vedanta had appealed against the decision, but the London’s Court of Appeal ruled against them. Vedanta then moved the Supreme Court contending that the case should be heard in Zambia instead.

Leigh Day, a UK law firm that represents the villagers, said they will now focus on bringing the case to trial, said Reuters. Day further said the the judgement could serve as cautionary for all multinational companies.

The Guardian reported that Vedanta had agreed to cooperate with the case in Zambian courts, but the claimants said that they may not have access to justice in their home country. Vedanta had earlier argued that operations in Zambia were governed by Zambian law.

“Had it not been for the access to justice problem, this court would therefore have refused the claimants permission to serve these English proceedings out of the jurisdiction upon KCM in Zambia,” Supreme Court Justice Lord Briggs said, according to The Guardian. “As it is, however, the non-availability of access to justice in Zambia means that the proceedings against both defendants must continue in England.”

In India, a copper smelter owned by Vedanta through its subsidiary, Sterlite, in Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukudi district was shut down by the state government after 13 people protesting against its expansion over pollution concerns were killed in May last year. Vedanta has approached judicial authorities to attempt to reopen the plant.