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New report details spread of COVID-19 through global mining industry

New report details spread of COVID-19 through global mining industry
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TORONTO -- A new report detailing COVID-19 outbreaks in mining facilities is accusing dozens of mining companies of prioritizing profit at the expense of the health of workers and local communities by continuing to operate during the pandemic.

“Mining operations from the beginning were sort of given … special status to continue operating,” she said Monday in a phone interview.

Within Canada, many provinces listed mining operations as “essential” in March when shutting down workplaces and businesses in order to cut down on large gatherings in accordance with COVID-19 health precautions.

Since the pandemic began, Francescone said, mining operations across the world have become “hotspots for transmission of the virus.”

The report analyzed nearly 500 media reports, field reports, company and civil society statements to create a “snapshot report” of the situation, describing some of the events that have taken place across the globe over the past few months.

Francescone described the report as “an attempt to synthesize … the big trends of the industry profiting from the pandemic, and also creating a state of greater risk for communities that live close to mine sites, and mine workers themselves.”

The Mining Association of Canada (MAC) said in a statement to CTVNews.ca that “like many sectors across the Canadian economy, [the mining industry] has been heavily impacted by COVID-19,” but said this new study "maligned and mischaracterized" their industry by claiming it is putting profit above all else.

Canadian companies own more than one-third of these mining facilities. Out of the 61 operations included in the report, 24 were owned or partially-owned by Canadian companies.

While many of the mining operations in the report had only one or two recorded cases of COVID-19, when an outbreak did get big enough to turn fatal, it was often connected to a Canadian-owned operation.

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But not only workers have died due to the outbreaks in mines.

Four other people were killed in local communities as a result of transmission from mining workers, according to the data. All four cases were connected to Canadian-owned mining operations — one in Ecuador and one in Canada — and all four people who died belonged to Indigenous communities, Francescone said.

The outbreak in Canada which resulted in death from community spread occurred at Kearl Lake, an oilsands mining plant in northern Alberta, close to the Saskatchewan border. Forty-five workers ultimately tested positive, and two Indigenous Dene elders in the nearby La Loche community in Saskatchewan died of the virus as a result, the report says.

Kearl Lake is still operating, despite being linked to community spread in not only Alberta and Saskatchewan, but also B.C. and Nova Scotia, after workers returned home. The report claims there are now more than 150 cases of community spread connected to Kearl Lake.

The company that owns Kearl Lake, Imperial Oil, state on their website that they have done contact tracing for all of the infected individuals, “and have asked additional members of our workforce to self-isolate while further testing is underway.” They add that they have instituted travel screenings for any fly-in workers, daily temperature readings for all individuals at the beginning of each shift and have made an isolation wing at the facility.

A press release from the Building Trades of Alberta union group dated May 13 said “reports of more than 100 cases of COVID-19 linked to Imperial Oil’s Kearl Lake oilsands facility in northern Alberta are concerning, but do not reflect overall camp safety in the province.”

Outbreaks in Canadian-owned mining companies account for more than 500 cases of COVID-19 identified among mining workers, according to the report’s database. Of those cases, more than 440 involve workers in Canadian-owned facilities outside of Canada.

The report says the largest single outbreak in a solely Canadian-owned mining facility is in the Cobre Panama copper mine in Panama, owned by First Quantum Minerals, whose headquarters are in Vancouver. More than 100 workers in the mine have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the report.

First Quantum Minerals said that they were suspending mining and processing operations temporarily due to COVID-19, days after Panama’s Ministry of Health confirmed a worker had died.

However, out of all the outbreaks the report looked at, the largest single outbreak is a coal mining operation in southern Poland, the Pniowek Coal Mine. It is operated by a Polish company, and more than 1,400 workers have tested positive, the report said. The next-largest outbreak is at the Olimpiada gold mine in Russia, where more than 800 people have been infected, according to the report.

After more than one-quarter of the workers at Mponeng gold mine who received tests for the novel coronavirus were found to have COVID-19, the South Africa-based mine, which is the world’s deepest operational mine,

But waiting until workers tested positive for COVID-19 to shut down operations has left many communities around these mines at risk.

A mining operation in northern Ontario is just one of the Canadian cases highlighted in the report. An outbreak at the Lac des Iles palladium mine, operated by Impala Canada, led to at least 25 infected workers, and one death, the report said.
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