Mining sites in Canada, the US and around the world have become hotspots for the spread of coronavirus, and approximately 4,000 mine workers in 18 countries have tested positive, according to a report by an international coalition of non-profit groups.
The report links mining sites to virus outbreaks in several Indigenous and remote communities.
In a separate statement more than 330 organizations around the world called mining “one of the most polluting, deadly, and destructive industries” and accused the industry of ignoring the threats of pandemic and using it to weaken regulations. “We reject the central claim that mining represents an essential service,” it reads.
The mining industry pushed governments to declare them “essential” and many continue to operate throughout the pandemic in the US and Canada, said Kirsten Francescone of MiningWatch Canada, one of the non-profit groups that authored the report. “Mine workers and members of nearby Indigenous and remote rural communities are at grave risk.”
At least 45 infected workers from a fly-in, fly-out work camp housing thousands at Exxon’s Imperial Oil Kearl Lake oil sands mine project in northern Alberta flew home in mid-April unknowingly spreading the virus in five Canadian provinces. This triggered an outbreak in a remote northern Saskatchewan Dene village, killing two elders, and in a long-term care home in British Columbia. The Kearl Lake outbreak has expanded to 107 cases as the mine continues to operate.
In mid-May another Alberta oilsands operation reported an outbreak but Alberta government officials insist these operations must remain open to protect the economy, said Francescone. “These outbreaks are hardly surprising with mine workers living together in camps.”
According to the report at least 25 workers were infected and one worker has died at the Lac des Iles palladium mine operated by Impala Canada in northern Ontario. The nearby Indigenous community, Gull Bay First Nation, reported at least eight people infected in connection with the mine outbreak in a community of only 300. Palladium is a precious metal used in vehicle pollution-control devices.
The report used field and media reports and company statements to document at least 69 mining sites around the world with serious outbreaks. One-third of the companies operating those sites are headquartered in Canada.
Many of the allegations and comments in the report “grossly misrepresent the facts”, said Pierre Gratton, president and chief executive officer of the Mining Association of Canada (MAC). “Within our membership in Canada, mines are operating Covid free,” Gratton said in an email. MAC does not represent all mining companies operating in Canada.
Gratton said mining “supports manufacturing, including a number of healthcare products” and that this is why governments have deemed the industry essential.
Mining is also treated as an “essential service” in the US, andseveral outbreaks have occurred. New Mexico’s Chino copper mine was forced to close indefinitely after a mid-April outbreak when a number of its workers tested positive.
At the same time, the US Environmental Protection Agency has “waived many enforcement and compliance obligations during the pandemic”, said Benjamin Hitchcock Auciello of Earthworks, a US non-profit that co-authored the report. New projects are conducting environmental-impact assessments despite the near-impossibility of performing legally required public consultations, Auciello said.
Many environmental regulations have also been waived for Alberta’s oil sands industry, one of the world’s largest energy projects, with over C$243bn (US$180bn) invested. To reduce infection risks “non-essential activities have been postponed to significantly reduce the number of people working on-site,” including those involved in “low-risk” environmental compliance checks, said Tim McMillan, president and CEO of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. These temporary measures allow “companies to focus on critical areas of operations”, McMillan said in a statement.