Deadly fibre: Kitui residents live in mortal fear of asbestos exposure

The spot at iongwe area in Kitui County where asbestos waste products were buried. (Photo: Philip Muasya/Standard)

Sometimes in March this year, a son to a prominent Kitui politician traveled from Nairobi to Kiongwe in Kitui East and rounded up a few villagers who have been farming on their family land.

He had a sweet proposal. They were to vacate the land by June so that he could put up a massive tourist hotel, which would absorb many of them as workers. “We were excited since we thought with such a facility, we would easily get jobs and it would also help develop the economy of the region,” recalls Paul Utee Kimanzi, a farmer who had a one-on-one chat with the farm owner.

To sweeten the deal, the farm owner told them he would sink a high volume water borehole that would serve the hotel and the neighbouring community. What the residents did not know, however, was that they were being fooled to create room for a dump site of toxic waste materials.

Soon, hopes of securing jobs at a high end hotel disappeared only to be replaced with worries for their lives following the dumping of tones of highly hazardous and dangerous asbestos waste materials buried only six feet deep in a water catchment area.

The site where the purported hotel was to be build is a spectacular scenery, sandwiched between scenic hills which provides an aerial view of Kitui town, some 20 kilometres away and Zombe and Mutito towns.

At the foot of the hills is Kiongwe River and other tributaries which feed into the giant Thua River downstream.

Two days after the man had left with his lofty promises, a National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) officer based in Kitui together with Sonata Kenya Limited officials and a subsidiary and Earth Care companies visited the area, and they had an excavator.

For the better part of the day, the earth mover tore into the ground with relentless fury, kicking dust and crushing stones into smithereens as it flattened the area. Locals gazed in awe believing it was preparation for the said hotel.

Police escort

But something curious happened when the revving excavator dug four giant pits and young men were hired to erect a chain link. A temporary toilet and bathroom were also erected.

Days later, two trucks and a semi-trailer, all full to capacity with asbestos waste, under tight police escort, wound their way to the site in the wee hours.

Mr Kimanzi and 19 other young men were hurriedly assembled to off-load the cargo. “They introduced themselves as officials from NEMA and paid us Sh800 each to off-load and bury the materials. But what drew our curiosity was when they gave us gloves, masks and aprons before we embarked on the job. We concluded this must be a dangerous mission,” Mr Kimanzi said.

He recalls one of the men identifying the material as asbestos and telling them they had to be properly protected since the material contains fibre which once inhaled is likely to cause lung cancer and other life-threatening ailments.

Consuming water mixed with asbestos fibre would also be harmful, either for humans or animals, they were told.

For two days, the young men would off-load the materials to the pits and cover them with soil.

But their concern for their health surpassed the quick money they made and would soon blow the whistle to the rest of the villagers.

Later, the residents formed a committee which wrote letters to NEMA, the police and the County Government seeking the removal of the material.

It has now emerged that NEMA flouted set guidelines on disposal of asbestos waste while issuing the licence to Sonata Kenya Limited. Letters in possession of the Sunday Standard have established communication between the Kitui Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) and the County Government addressed to NEMA and Sonata about the potential danger posed by huge quantities of asbestos dumped at Kiongwe area.

Police claim they informed NEMA about the dangers the local community was exposed to but nothing has happened despite assurance that the toxic material was to be excavated. In the letters, police say the Director General of NEMA assured them that Sonata had been directed to immediately remove the waste and restore the area to its original wholesome status.

The county government also wrote to NEMA raising the issue and demanded immediate action against Sonata. “You issued an Environmental Impact Assessment licence to Sonata Kenya Ltd without proper due process. The site where the materials were dumped is a water catchment area which feeds into Thua River and no disposal or dumping is allowed in such a critical ecosystem whatsoever,” the letter addressed to NEMA by the County Executive in-charge of Environment, Energy and Minerals investment George Mulatya.

Mulatya further complained that the site slope is over 60 per cent hence not ideal of disposal of high risk materials such as asbestos.

Another letter from the DCI signed by Richard Wasilwa, who was leading the investigations notes that samples collected from the site and taken to the Government Chemist to ascertain if indeed the material was asbestos turned out positive.

Mr Wasilwa said they are looking for Sonata directors “to come and record statements and see who is responsible for the offence.”

On June 13, the DCI officers, together with senior NEMA officials from Nairobi, visited the site after which NEMA issued an order to the company to remove the materials.

“So far NEMA headquarters has issued the company with a cessation and restoration order for asbestos disposal site on plot number 690/Nambani/Maluma,” the letter reads.

The DCI has already instituted charges against Sonata through one of its directors, Noah Khaemba, for breech of disposal licence guidelines.

Mr Khaemba will appear at a Kitui court on July 25, to answer to among others, charges of flouting the disposal guidelines.

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