Mining industry accused of spreading COVID-19 in remote communities by new report

Financial Post

The report says companies in Canada and abroad continued to operate after a worker tested positive leading to an outbreak, community transmission and in some cases deaths

Gabriel Friedman

Published on: June 2, 2020 | Last Updated: June 2, 2020 7:26 AM EDT

A new report by an international coalition of non-profit groups have sharply criticized the mining industry for spreading the coronavirus into remote communities, both in Canada and abroad.

The report, titled ‘Voices on the Ground’ and published on Tuesday, accuses mining companies from all over the world of prioritizing profit over worker safety by continuing to operate during the pandemic, and failing to take adequate safety precautions after outbreaks were discovered, sometimes with fatal results.

“We said from the beginning that any mine operating at full capacity is presenting risks to workers,” said Kirsten Francescone, Latin American coordinator of MiningWatch Canada, one of the non-profit groups that authored the report.

Francescone added, “It’s not just workers at risk … it’s communities that have no access to any kind of medicare or resources, where people have pre-existing conditions. We’re talking about already vulnerable populations.”

The report said its authors reviewed over 500 news articles in multiple languages, as well as press releases and other ‘reports’. It stated its purpose was to give a snapshot of conditions on the ground at mines, not to provide analysis of metal markets or other financial aspects of the sector.

In addition to Ottawa-based MiningWatch Canada, six other non-profits from both the U.S. and the U.K. are listed as authors, including Earthworks, Institute for Policy Studies — Global Economy Program, London Mining Network, Terra Justa, War on Want and Yes to Life No to Mining.

Francescone said there were 69 mines with outbreaks, of which one-third were operated by companies with headquarters here and called it “emblematic” of a lack of leadership in the Canadian mining industry.

She acknowledged that part of the reason for the focus on Canadian mining companies is because they dominate the global mining industry, in particular in the Americas and Asia, which is where the report focused.

Pierre Gratton, president and chief executive officer of the Mining Association of Canada, pushed back against accusations that his sector has been irresponsible, and said his members convened a taskforce early on to devise a strategy.

He noted many companies’ shut down mines in March, and continued to pay workers; in Indigenous communities, many mines paid local workers but allowed them to stay home because they faced a greater risk due to the lack of medical resources in their community.

Many of his members employ medical staff, and most have not had outbreaks or fatalities, Gratton added.

“I think our industry has taken it extremely seriously,” he said.

Yet, the report accuses many mining companies of continuing to operate after a worker tested positive leading to an outbreak, and in some cases deaths or community transmission.

At Impala Canada’s Lac des Illes palladium mine, about 90 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay, Ont., a worker tested positive in early April and the mine continued to operate for a period, according to the report, and the company’s Facebook page.

Eventually, 25 workers tested positive and one died, according to the report, which also alleges that a nearby Indigenous community has since discovered eight cases linked to the mine outbreak.

Impala Canada did not respond to requests for comment. According to its Facebook page, it did pay workers while the mine was shut down.

In Northern Alberta, Imperial Oil’s Kearl Lake oilsands mine continued to operate and faced an outbreak that infected dozens of workers. The report said the infected workers ultimately spread the virus to British Columbia, Nova Scotia and to a remote Dene community in Saskatchewan where two Indigenous elders from the La Loche community have died from the virus.

In a statement, the company said it could not comment on the report because it had not seen it, but confirmed that to date, 90 workers have recovered, while seven remain in recovery offsite.

On its website, the company defended itself, saying it took measures to protect its workers, including broad testing, an isolation wing, enhanced cleaning and disinfection and other measures.

In both cases, mining was deemed an essential activity, and mines were legally permitted to operate. Francescone said provincial leaders bear some responsibility for the spread of the outbreak, noting in provinces such as Quebec, where mines shut down for a three-week period, the spread was reduced.

The report goes on to cite how mines in Latin America, Africa and Asia continued to operate, despite objections from local residents in some cases, and ultimately faced outbreaks.

Francescone said mines that continued to operate after discovering cases failed to act properly in her opinion.

“As soon as they had a case, they should have stopped operating,” she said.

Financial Post

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