Eight miners enter fourth week trapped in a flooded Canadian-owned mine in West Africa

More than three weeks since torrential rains cut off access to the surface, eight miners are trapped half a kilometer underground, their status unknown, in a flooded zinc mine in West Africa owned by a Canadian company.

In an update posted online Monday, Vancouver-based Trevali Mining Corp. that rescue teams are working around the clock and that so far about 32 million liters of water – enough to fill nearly 13 Olympic swimming pools – from the mine in Burkina Faso.

Rainwater in the landlocked country cut off access to the mine’s lower levels on April 16, and there has been no communication with the missing workers since, the company said.

According to local news reports, the mine flooded during a severe thunderstorm that fell earlier in the year than the typical rainy season. Water spilled into the open mine, halting operations and trapping a small group of miners — six from Burkina Faso and one each from Tanzania and Zambia — at what is reportedly about 550 meters below.

Although there is no sign of them, they may have access to an emergency room with food and oxygen.

Compared to other cases of incarcerated miners that have received international attention, the case has received relatively little attention outside of Burkina Faso, where it is closely watched.

Officials in the country are investigating the incident and the mine’s management has reportedly been prevented from leaving the country.

“Precautions have been taken to prevent those responsible for the mine from leaving the country and clear instructions have been given to the secretary of security,” the country’s prime minister’s office said in a statement to Radio Canada International. .

The site, known as the Perkoa Mine, is located about 120 kilometers west of the capital Ouagadougou and produces zinc concentrate. It started in 2013 and was bought by Trevali four years later.

According to Al Jazeera, Burkina Faso’s Prime Minister Alberta Ouedraogo blamed those responsible for the mine for “irresponsibility” and said the use of dynamite had weakened part of the mine and allowed the flooding to occur.

Trevali did not respond to the Star’s requests for comment, but Al Jazeera said the company had indicated it was aware of the comments.

“We are working in solidarity with all levels of government and as quickly as we can, using all available resources in the country, and also importing additional machinery and equipment to help locate our missing colleagues,” said Trevali President and CEO Ricus Grimbeek . in the statement posted online.

“Our thoughts are with the families of our colleagues and we continue to work closely with the families and the government to ensure their needs are met during this difficult time.”

Burkina Faso has faced challenges of its own in recent months, thanks to an increase in attacks by groups associated with Al Qaeda and ISIL, which have in turn sparked protests from people frustrated over the government’s inability to address the issue.

Trevali is a global zinc producer with three “revenue-generating” mines in Canada, Burkina Faso and Namibia, according to its website. Mined zinc is often used in the galvanizing process to protect iron and steel from rusting, but can also be used to make bronze or added to fertilizer.

An update on the site references work underway to try to reach the eight workers, including rebuilding five kilometers of rough underground road and installing 24 electric and diesel pumps to remove the water. In addition to local groups such as the Burkina Faso National Fire Service, the mine has also received aid offers from Morocco and the European Union.

Questions remain about the mine’s history and how ready management was for such an event, said Jamie Kneen, a spokesperson for MiningWatch Canada, an Ontario-based NGO pushing for better environmental and human rights records in Canada’s mining industry. which also dominates mining around the world.

Most international companies are based in Canada, and the only regulations they deal with are from local authorities, Kneen said.

“The jury doesn’t know how this could have happened,” he said. “From a technical standpoint, if you’re a mining company you have a pretty good idea of ​​what the potential worst-case scenarios are, and whether you’re investing in the backup systems to deal with those emergencies is a management decision.”

He pointed to the number of pumps being installed to remove water from the mine shafts: “They’re putting in extra pumps, which means they didn’t have them on hand,” he said.

Floods are a known mining risk, Kneen said: The high-quality uranium mines in northern Saskatchewan are some of the most high-tech mines in the world, and even they are not immune to the occasional influx of water from the ground. So it’s common for engineers to calculate flood risk and have pumps ready just in case.

In 2020, global management consultancy McKinsey wrote a report concluding that a changing climate would pose a major risk of water scarcity or flooding to mining operations in the coming years. Iron ore and zinc mines were considered the most likely flood hazard based on location.

While Burkina Faso awaits news about what happened and the miners’ fate, Kneen said it’s an opportunity for Canadians to think about where some of our minerals come from.

“That’s what we’ve learned from the pandemic, that the people who actually make these things happen are mostly invisible and the fact that we all take this for granted.”

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