New report details spread of COVID-19 through global mining industry
In this file photo, a haul truck carrying a full load drives away from a mining shovel at the Shell Albian Sands oilsands mine near Fort McMurray, Alta., Wednesday, July 9, 2008. A new report is accusing the global mining industry of prioritizing profit at the expense of workers and local communities during the pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
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.
The report released Tuesday aggregates data from more than 18 countries. Kirsten Francescone, MiningWatch Canada's Latin America program co-ordinator, told CTVNews.ca that it suggests that many mining companies are also using the pandemic as a chance to push deregulation of environmental checks and balances, and avoid community oversight, all while endangering their own workers and those living nearby.
“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.”
MiningWatch Canada jointly produced the report with Earthworks (USA), Institute for Policy Studies - Global Economy Program (USA), London Mining Network (UK), MiningWatch Canada, Terra Justa, War on Want (UK) and Yes to Life No to Mining, and with the support of many other organizations.
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.
THE COVID-19 COST
According to MiningWatch Canada, almost 4,000 positive cases of COVID-19 were identified within the 61 mines and one mining convention covered in the report, and 247 additional cases of COVID-19 could be attributed to community spread from workers in the mines.
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.
Seven of the 10 COVID-19-related worker deaths covered in the report are connected to outbreaks in Canadian-owned or partially Canadian-owned mining operations in Canada, Ecuador, Panama and Peru.
THE CANADIAN PICTURE
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.”
Francescone said that the mining operations covered in the report include all types, from coal mining projects to gold mining. Oilsands mining projects are also included in the operations studied, but other oil-related resource development projects such as fracking are not.
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 in a statement on April 7 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, shut down in late May.
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.
According to the company’s website, it shut down operations as a result of the outbreak, but only temporarily. The mine was closed between April 13 and May 18. In a written update on the company’s Facebook in early May, they said the remaining 24 cases had been resolved, and that there were no more outstanding cases.
“Based on contact tracing, we believe the spread likely occurred through immediate work crews and through interactions at camp,” another written update from Impala Canada on May 8 stated.
As a result of the mine’s outbreak, the nearby Gull Bay First Nation reported that at least eight people in the community became infected.
MAC said Canada’s mining industry has been “very successful to date,” in managing the pandemic and has provided those working in the industry and those living near mines with the "very highest protections" when it comes to health and safety.
“Some operations have voluntarily closed, even without COVID-19 cases, in response to Indigenous community concerns and remain closed. Others have begun to reopen but only after very close cooperation with these communities and after extensive safety measures have been established," the group said in its statement.
THE PERMIT PRESSURE
In Canada, and many other places in the world, mining projects and projects related to the oil industry overwhelmingly affect Indigenous communities.
Companies are required to get informed consent from Indigenous communities to build any sort of resource development project on their lands, but often these projects are pushed through despite organized protests by communities and allies worried about environmental and cultural impacts.
As the pandemic forced people inside their homes and away from large gatherings, some mining companies saw an opportunity, according to the report.
“Mining companies have taken advantage of the lockdown measures or the quarantine measures being imposed on many countries to advance operations that they couldn't in the past, that had been stalled,” Francescone said.
While one section of the report was dedicated to outlining COVID-19 outbreaks in mining facilities, other sections were dedicated to supplying examples of protests against mining projects being violently shut down or prevented due to health measures in several countries such as Ecuador, Turkey and the Philippines, and some companies using the pandemic to push for regulatory change in their favour.
Francescone highlighted one example from the report.
On May 22, the Brazilian Supreme Court released a video to the public showing President Jair Bolsonaro and his ministers in a meeting during which the Minister of Environment, Ricardo Salles, said the pandemic “is an opportunity to push through deregulation of environmental policy, given that the media and institutions are focusing their attention on the pandemic,” according to the report.
The very same day, Alberta’s energy minister Sonya Savage made a comment on a podcast hosted by an oil association that “now is a great time to be building a pipeline because you can't have protests of more than 15 people.”
Francescone said the two statements were similar, calling Savage’s words an “emblematic example” of policy makers and companies seeking to use the pandemic to quietly push resource development projects through without having to gain the support of the community.
“That perfectly fits in line and resonates with the trends that we're seeing globally,” she said.
On May 25, the Alberta Energy Regulator suspended at least 19 different environmental monitoring requirements for oilsands companies, including regulations regarding monitoring on-site air and water quality, citing COVID-19 health measures as the reason.
After the decision, Allan Adam, chief of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation who live in that region, said they hadn’t been consulted.
“This sort of deregulation or this push to eliminate public oversight, expedite permits, we've seen all over the globe,” Francescone said.
“I think we have to be conscious that there's a real degradation of our human and environmental rights that's happening right now that maybe we can't see, but that definitely in a few months or in a year or in two years, we're going to start to really feel the impact of what's happened.”
The decision to list mining operations as “essential” early on in the pandemic in key mining regions such as Ontario and British Columbia did spark concerns and criticism from some activists, but there were no widespread calls from policy makers to shut down their operations due to COVID-19.
In fact, Quebec, after initially listing mining operations as non-essential during the pandemic, announced on April 14 that they would be allowed to operate again. Premier Francois Legault said the province had ensured that all “protocols have been put in place to protect those employees,” and the reopening came with a list of changes to industry behaviour, such as miners being required to wear gloves and the number of fly-in workers being reduced.
However, the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador still decried the decision, saying in a news release that it was “dangerously compromising the efforts made by our communities to slow the spread of the disease.”
When mines have reopened, MAC said, is has been done in accordance with public health guidance and with "very close cooperation" with neighbouring areas.
Mined products, according to the MAC, are an “essential … part of the North American manufacturing supply chain, which includes the production of medical equipment.”
Francescone pointed out that in Ontario, mining exploration was singled out as equally “essential” as mining itself in the initial list of essential workplaces.
“There's no way that you can justify that mining exploration is an essential activity,” she said. “Furthermore, you can't justify things like gold mining as an essential activity.”
Francescone hopes that policy makers will view her group's report as a resource to help them assess the role of mining companies “a little bit more carefully now that we have two months of evidence of what has gone wrong and what has happened because these industries have been permitted to produce.”
She said the mining industry has been pushing the idea that it will be a key part of Canada’s economic recovery after the pandemic but argued that doubling down on mining projects in Canada would mean taking a step back from environmental concerns regarding the climate crisis that saw Canada pushing for more green technology before the pandemic.
“The industry can not be front and centre at a debate about economic recovery in the context of the ecological crisis that we're living in,” Francescone said.
“If we expect to ever make real change towards … lowering our carbon footprint as a country and in the world, we can't possibly do those things if we allow the mining industry to gain so much [of a] foothold during this crisis. That's where we're concerned about where those moves to deregulate are [heading].”
Map by Mahima Singh