Covid-19: how the mining industry is responding

JP Casey 27 May 2020 (Last Updated May 26th, 2020 09:33)

With more than 1.3 million cases of Covid-19 now confirmed around the world, the pandemic is forcing companies to adjust their practices to keep workers safe and maintain production. We profile some of the mining industry’s responses to the outbreak.

Covid-19: how the mining industry is responding
Rio Tinto’s Paraburdoo iron ore mine in Western Australia’s Pilbara region. Credit: Copyright © 2018 Rio Tinto.

Rio Tinto left in limbo

Rio Tinto’s responses to the crisis have been cautious, if inconsistent. At its operations in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, the miner has implemented airport health checks to monitor the condition of incoming fly-in fly-out workers, and established a new two-week-on, two-week-off working schedule for its 1,200 employees in the region, as it aims to balance safety and productivity.

In Mongolia, meanwhile, a government-backed tightening of national borders has slowed work at its Oyu Tolgoi development. The mine, jointly owned by Rio Tinto and the Mongolian state, boasts an annual copper production of 146,300 tonnes since open pit mining began in 2011, and the miner was eager to develop underground operations at the mine to take advantage of the 3.4 billion tonnes of ore reserves. The government’s caution, however, has slowed work on the project, leaving the future of the mine unclear.

China ramps up mining demand

China has been hit the hardest by the outbreak of Covid-19, but the national government is refusing to let the pandemic affect mining production. The state put the quota for mined materials in the first half of the year at 66,000 tonnes, 10% higher than in 2019, and half of 2019’s end-of-year mining total of 132,000 tonnes.

However, there are concerns that these targets are far too optimistic, with only one-fifth of the country’s rare earth miners having returned to work since the outbreak began. The government has also refused to set quotas for smelting and separation, processes linked to production and figures that are typically announced alongside production quotas, suggesting that despite public optimism about the mining sector’s productivity, the government is internally more aware of the sector’s struggles.

Alta Zinc’s Gorno suspension

In Italy, a nationwide lockdown has interfered with mining operations, as mine workers are unable to follow what the government calls “smart working practices”, such as working from home. As a result, Italian operations are being temporarily shut down, such as Alta Zinc’s Gorno project, a zinc mine in Lombardy with around 3.3 million tonnes of zinc reserves in indicated and inferred resources.

While Alta Zinc noted that the outbreak had not been as severe around its mine as in other parts of the country, the nationwide quarantine has gone into full effect to prevent the spread of the virus, affecting all parts of the country. The miner has left its equipment in place, having been in the process of completing drilling and exploration work at the time of the lockdown, but it is unclear when, if ever, it will be able to resume work.

Minerals Council of Australia’s coordinating efforts

As miners struggle to establish coherent policies and responses to the pandemic, industry bodies are aiming to use their reach and influence to coordinate the actions of their members. The Minerals Council of Australia has promoted the Industry Capability Network, a platform initially used to connect buyers to sellers across a number of Australian industries, as a means for miners to communicate and continue trading as best they can.

The council has also established a working group which has been involved in a number of logistical projects, such as relieving pressure on ports and railway networks, and working with the government to make mine sites exempt from a nationwide ban on gatherings of more than 100 people.

United Mineworkers call for greater protection

The United Mineworkers of America has called for more comprehensive and tailored protection for mineworkers, with its president, Cecil E Roberts, dubbing the pandemic “unlike any health and safety situation we have ever witnessed before” in an open letter to David Zatezalo, assistant secretary of labour for mine safety and health. Roberts went on to say that generic advice, concerning practices such as hand-washing and social distancing and promoted by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, was not applicable to miners, and that the government ought to introduce specific safety measures to protect mineworkers.

He also called on the government to issue an “emergency standard”, which would obligate private mining companies to implement safety measures. While this move would undoubtedly help safeguard miners, the letter could create tension between mining unions who fear for their safety, private companies who fear for their autonomy, and the federal government caught in the middle.