The face of Athi River, once predominantly an industrial zone, is fast changing as demand for housing sees residential estates coming up in the area.
But this change has heralded turf wars with industrialists.
A recent example is the battle between Erdermann Properties Ltd, the developers of Great Wall Apartments, and London Distillers Kenya (LDK) in, Mlolongo, Athi River Constituency.
Erdermann, which has built an expansive estate comprising 3,000 apartments next to LDK, accuses the distiller of polluting the environment, making its houses unattractive to clients.
The war, which has seen the LDK management appear before a parliamentary committee to answer to claims of pollution, have escalated in the recent past, with a group of protesters clashing with LDK workers at company’s gate on April 9.
The protesters claimed to be from the neighbouring City Carton slum, but City Carton residents later wrote a letter to LDK disowning the group. They said the group comprised hired goons from Nairobi, who had been transported in buses.
They said that as immediate neighbours of the factory, they would have easily walked to its premises if they had any issues with it, instead of using buses.
They copied the letter to the Office of the President, several Cabinet secretaries, and the Inspector-General of police, among others.
To push their agenda, Erdermann are holding on to the claim that LDK is operating illegally, since it had been ordered closed by the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) for not adhering to environmental regulations.
However, DN2 established that the letter written by Nema on February 6, 2017, was revoked on March 13, 2017, after the company responded to Nema’s concerns. Nema sent officers to the company to confirm compliance before lifting the order.
Mr Crispus Michira, the LDK environmental health and safety officer, said Nema had given an “improvement order”, but there appeared to have been a miscommunication since Nema pointed out that the company had not replied to the letter ordering it to improve effluent treatment and disposal.
A tour of the company revealed that LDK does not discharge effluent into a nearby river as claimed, since its sewer system is connected to the Export Processing Zone(EPZ) sewer line.
Besides, there was no smoke being emitted when DN2 visited. LDK has set up an elaborate treatment system, which starts from a biogas production plant that treats effluent and extracts methane gas through to an effluent treatment plant with lagoons before going to the public sewer. The biogas produced is used to power the company’s systems, thus reducing emissions from the chimney, Mr Michira explained.
Further, LDK has planted 7,659 trees in its compound. It is also embarking on a project to plant 10,000 giant bamboo trees on 350 hectares of land near the plant.
“Giant bamboo is fast-growing. We will engage jobless youths in the project,” said LDK Human Resource Manager Peter Muli. He noted that the neighbouring community has no complaints about the company since it provides water, and even grass, for their cows.
He said that Erdermann, which came to the area in 2014, should not have put up residential houses near a factory; LDK has been in the area since 1982.
LDK says that in 2016, it wrote to the relevant authorities protesting the construction of residential houses by Erdermann, but its concerns were ignored.
Meanehile Erdermann Marketing Officer John Rajwayi says they got all the necessary approvals. But he did not wish to comment on the pollution claims against LDK.
Enviromentalist Jeremia Simba blames the conflict on poor planning by the defunct Athi River Municipality.
While Athi River was previously an industrial zone, recent human settlement in slums and upmarket apartments neighbouring industries have led to conflict between the industrialists and residents, who want a clean environment.
Mr Simba, who is the Director of the Semi-Arid Regions Environmental Services, says that he helped stop the odour that used to emanate from the Kenya Meat Commission (KMC) factory in Athi River, adding that the problem in Athi River is mainly poor infrastructural planning.
“Much as we want to blame the industries, we should also blame those who come to settle near factories, and those who license the construction of residential houses in an industrial zone,” he says.
Mr Simba says there are inevitable pollutants in industries, whose impact can only be minimised but not eradicated. He cites noise, which emanates from a mabati (iron sheet) manufacturing factory, and the bad smell from a slaughterhouse, as cases in point.
Regarding KMC, Mr Simba wrote to the Public Complaints Committee, which directed KMC to either build cold rooms for storing factory waste, or to dispose of the waste daily. That solved the problem.
With the group of protesters having presented their petition to Nema headquarters and the Parliamentary Environment Committee, the battle seems far from over.