Does the mining industry suffer insurance extortion? Inside Codelco’s Chile Lawsuit

JP Casey 21 April 2020 (Last Updated April 20th, 2020 15:49)

Despite a strong safety record, Codelco mineworkers and bosses are being charged insurance premiums nearly twice as high as the market average. The Chilean miner has filed a lawsuit alleging that miners’ unions have inflated these premiums, raising a host of new questions for a miner already in transition. JP Casey finds out more.

Does the mining industry suffer insurance extortion? Inside Codelco’s Chile Lawsuit
Despite a strong safety record, Codelco mineworkers and bosses are being charged insurance premiums nearly twice as high as the market average. Credit: Diego Delso

Codelco is undergoing a period of transition. The state-owned Chilean miner has committed $39bn to new mining operations for the next decade, with the moving and modernisation of processes a priority; this shift is headlined by a $5.6bn investment into its vast Chuquicamata mine, to convert the world’s largest open pit copper operation to an underground mine.

However, the transition has not been smooth, and recent financial troubles have plagued the modernisation projects. Late last year, the company filed a lawsuit alleging that miners at the Chuquicamata and Radomiro Tomic mines, which collectively produce around two million tonnes of copper a year, were being charged premiums for personal insurance nearly twice as high as the market average, despite a strong recent safety record at both projects.

With both the miner and its workers bearing the brunt of these additional fees, Codelco and the Chilean Government are eager to root out the cause of the high premiums and restore both financial security and operational stability to a key industry in transition. While questions remain as to whether these parties can stabilise Chilean copper operations, the general trend towards safety compliance and firm insurance frameworks is a cause for optimism in the mining sector.

Lower risk but higher premiums

The state-owned miner has filed a lawsuit alleging that insurance premiums for its mineworkers were up to 68% higher than the average market rate, according to an audit completed by Cochilco, the country’s copper commission. While the company is undergoing a period of transition, as it tries to move its mines from open-pit to underground operations, which could lead to slightly inflated insurance premiums, this dramatic increase is perhaps unexpected; there has not been a fatal accident at Chuquicamata since 2016, and no deaths have been reported at Radomiro Tomic since 2013.

These accidents are part of a recent trade in improved safety performances across Chilean mines. Twelve people died across the country’s mines in 2017 according to the Chilean geology and mining service, the lowest figure in 18 years, and a 33% decrease compared to the previous year. This inconsistency between threats that can be reasonably assumed, and financial commitments made to protect against them, has cost both the miner and its employees considerably.

According to Codelco, these inflated premiums had cost $22m between 2005 and 2018, half of which was covered by the company, and half by its workers, highlighting the fact that both parties have had their finances affected by the scam.

Argentinian insurance broker Gestion y Servicios was named by Reuters as a potentially involved party, having made payments to at least two unions represented at Codelco’s mines in exchange for renewing insurance packages through the company. The broker has made insurance deals across a number of sectors, from home and contents cover to personal watercraft coverage, and did note on its site that it has seen a slump in new commissions for workplace health insurance, a decline perhaps influenced by recent trends in Chilean mining safety.

New operations and old priorities

Some of this financial uncertainty at Codelco’s operations could be explained by the miner’s recent decision to convert its Chuquicamata mine into an underground operation, a move that will require a series of changes to the mine’s assets and infrastructure, and as a result, could impact the mine’s insurance requirements.

“If you’ve got to go underground, it’s not a cheap process,” said Neil Stewart, managing director of global and corporate property at Gallagher, who highlighted how differences between the needs of open-pit and underground operations could change the miner’s financial obligations. “That’s usually more so than if you’re just breaking off a bit of top soil and then you can start processing things,” he continued.

“When you go underground, you will insure things like the shaft infrastructure, the air conditioning-type infrastructure, the electricity power supply-type infrastructure, and then you’ll have things like conveyors and trucks and hauls and things underground.

“Some of [the Latin American mines] are kilometres across and kilometres deep, as opposed to hundreds of meters wide and hundreds of meters deep, and over time they’re susceptible to events like earthquakes and some pitfalls have collapsed. So that in itself creates operational challenges, but going underground really creates operational challenges.”

These insurance challenges are compounded by the vast scale of the new underground operations. The mine will require the construction of more than 750km of new underground tunnels up to a depth of 3km below the surface, and up to 60 blocks each measuring 35,000 square metres will be excavated using block caving techniques over the course of the mine’s life.

However, Stewart also noted that insurance projects remain broadly similar across heavy industries. Regardless of the assets involved or specific risks to workers, the overarching purpose of protecting employees and ensuring efficient operations means many mining insurance frameworks are fundamentally similar; “broadly, an underground mine is an underground mine,” he said.

Changing cultures

In the same vein, there is a broad similarity across the mining sector where issues relating to insurance and worker safety are becoming increasingly prominent. Stewart argued that “without doubt” there has been a shift in this direction.

“People have become far more professional over time,” he said. “So many of the companies that we work with, [when] we go and visit their sites [they are] recognising that they’re big, heavy, industrial sites where they’re shifting rock around, that they’re incredibly professional and very conscious of what they’re doing. [There is a] massive emphasis on protecting their employees and so on.

“Everybody, as a broad comment, is vastly better today than they were ten years ago and the ten years before that.”

He pointed to recent dramatic instances where mining safety standards have been compromised, such as the disaster at Vale’s Brazilian operations last year that saw 12 million tonnes of mining waste discharged into the town of Brumadinho, and the proactive responses of industry leaders to ensure similar accidents do not take place. In response, the International Council on Mining and Metals, an industry body representing some of the world’s largest miners, tightened its restrictions on tailings dams, and Stewart noted that this cross-industry support has been vital in creating a culture that is proactive in ensuring industrial operations are properly insured.

“History moves forward, these things get better,” he said. “There have been industry events like the tailings situation, [which] is clearly one that’s in everybody’s minds at the moment, but over time, social awareness about what is and is not acceptable in terms of working practices in any industrial environment has changed and improved.”

The alleged insurance fraud at Codelco’s operations is therefore rendered all the more striking in the context of this industry-wide push for greater safety and insurance compliance. While it is unclear what the outcome of the conflict will be, with the lawsuit still ongoing, there is optimism throughout the industry that incidents such as these are isolated examples of malpractice in an industry that is working towards improving its safety performance.