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African Mine Disaster Turns Spotlight on Canadian Mining Firms

Eight miners are trapped in a mine owned by a Vancouver-based company. Advocates want more accountability.

Amanda Follett Hosgood 10 May

Amanda Follett Hosgood is The Tyee’s northern B.C. reporter. She lives in Wet’suwet’en territory. Find her on Twitter @amandajfollett.

As the search continues for eight African miners trapped underground in a Canadian-owned mine in Burkina Faso, advocates say Canada’s laws should be toughened to ensure greater corporate responsibility.

Vancouver-based Trevali Mining Corp. said Monday that there has been no communication with the miners since heavy rains caused flash flooding at the mine on April 16.

As workers evacuated, eight miners working more than 500 metres underground became trapped, the company said. There has been no contact with the workers, six of whom are local with the remaining two from Zambia and Tanzania, according to news reports.

While extreme weather is blamed for the disaster, Burkina Faso government officials have also placed responsibility on managers at Perkoa Mine, saying the government has launched a judicial investigation. Six of the miners’ families have also taken legal action. The West African country has a population of 20 million.

Catherine Coumans, a research co-ordinator with advocacy group MiningWatch Canada, said environmental and human-rights violations by Canadian mining companies operating overseas are more common than most Canadians realize.

She hopes recently tabled federal legislation could bring about change.

“We are constantly being made aware of these incidents, where workers are put at risk because of working for Canadian mining companies,” Coumans said, pointing to two unrelated recent disasters in Burkina Faso and Ghana. Both mines were owned by Toronto-based companies.

“It’s a matter of cutting corners. It’s a matter of getting away with what you can get away with,” said Coumans. “There is a real problem with lack of accountability and effective impunity when our Canadian companies operate overseas.”

Trevali did not immediately respond to The Tyee’s interview requests or emailed questions.

But in recent updates posted to its website, the company said flooding had eroded the mine’s main access route, which spirals more than half a kilometre underground.

“The torrent of water entering the mine resulted in significant road surface erosion,” the company said, adding that additional pumps could not be moved into the depths of the mine until access was repaired. By April 23, a week after the flood, communications and power had been re-established to 520 metres below ground, it said.

However, the workers remain deeper than that.

“There has been no communication with these workers since soon after the evacuation order was given,” the company said, adding that two refuge chambers located below 520 metres are “designed to provide a refuge for workers trapped in a hazardous environment.”

It added that it did not know if the workers were able to access the chambers.

Even if they had, their ability to survive is likely running out. According to local media reports, shelters within the zinc mine can provide two weeks of water and oxygen, but food remains a problem. The workers have been trapped for over three weeks.

The refuge where the workers may be located is 580 metres below the surface. Local media reported over the weekend that “significant advances” in pumping had cleared flood waters to 550 metres.

On Friday, the government of Burkina Faso called for international help to find the missing miners. "All human and material resources must be deployed on the Perkoa site to give the miners the chance to live," government spokesman Lionel Bilgo said.

Vancouver-based Trevali, which focuses its operations on zinc production, purchased Perkoa Mine in August 2017. In addition to its Burkina Faso mine, it operates mines in Namibia and northern New Brunswick. It also has non-operational properties in New Brunswick and Manitoba.

Last week, the company cancelled a conference call where it had intended to deliver 2022 first-quarter financial results, saying its primary focus is on the missing miners. The call is now planned for May 16.

In February, Trevali reported that its revenues increased by 61 per cent last year over the previous year, to almost US$350 million. It credited an increase in zinc prices and a reduction in processing costs.

While the company said it had reduced its “significant incidents” by 30 per cent last year, its total recordable injury frequency — the number of incidents requiring medical treatment — were nearly twice those of the previous year.

The underground portion of the Perkoa Mine has been operating since 2013. A 70-metre deep open pit was previously established to access material near the surface, according to a technical report prepared for Trevoli as it took ownership in 2017.

The mine’s portal is located at the base of the open-pit portion of the mine, something flagged as a potential flood risk in the report.

“Great care has been taken to manage rainfall in the portal box cut as this is the biggest exposure to flood,” the report noted, adding that sumps are built into the box cut, or mine entrance, to capture water and reduce its ability to enter the mine.

According to the report, a ventilation shaft “connects all levels” of the mine and also acts as an emergency escape route. At the time of the report, mining was occurring down to 400 metres, with mining at deeper levels slated for possible future development. It noted that more drilling would be needed to determine whether mineral resources were available below 520 metres.

It’s unclear what, if any, exit routes had been established in the more recently developed sections of the mine.

Burkina Faso Prime Minister Albert Ouédraogo has blamed “irresponsibility” on the part of mine managers for the disaster. He said flooding was a result of weakening of the underground gallery due to the use of open-air dynamite.

Mine managers have been barred from leaving the country while the investigation is ongoing.

The families of six trapped miners have reportedly also filed lawsuits against “persons unknown” for attempted manslaughter, endangering life and failing to assist a person in danger.

While Coumans said it’s “rare” to detain company executives following a mining disaster, she isn’t optimistic it will lead to better outcomes or accountability on behalf of the company if wrongdoing is found.

“I would be very surprised if there were actual repercussions for the company or its senior executives,” said Coumans, who noted that in the more than 20 years that MiningWatch Canada has been operating there has been very little progress in holding Canadian companies operating overseas to account.

“The problem of effective impunity when our Canadian companies operate overseas is alive and well,” she said. “It’s no different now than it was in 1999 when we started.”

What has changed, she said, is what she describes as the opening of a “clear path forward” for holding Canadian companies accountable.

In March, the federal NDP tabled two private members bills aimed at improving accountability of Canadian companies abroad by requiring them to do risk assessments on potential harms and demonstrate how they would prevent them. The approach is based on models developed in Europe that ensure corporations and their subsidiaries are not violating human rights or contaminating environments.

“This is what we need. We need mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence in Canada,” Coumans said. “Unless there’s consequences for the harm that’s done… [by] cutting corners they can save money.”

Trevali said in statements posted to its website that it is working around the clock to locate the missing miners and remains in regular contact with their families. The company did not respond to specific questions about what support the families are receiving or The Tyee’s request for an update on the search for the miners.  [Tyee]

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