More than three weeks since heavy rainfall cut off access to the surface, eight miners remain trapped half a kilometer underground, their status unknown, in a flooded-out zinc mine in West Africa that’s owned by a Canadian company.
In an update posted online Monday, Vancouver-based Trevali Mining Corp. said rescue crews are working around the clock and that, so far, roughly 32 million liters of water — enough to fill almost 13 Olympic swimming pools — have been pumped out of 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.
The mine flooded during a heavy thunderstorm that came earlier in the year than the typical rainy season, according to local news reports. Water spilled into the open pit, shutting down operations and trapping a small group of miners — six from Burkina Faso and one each from Tanzania and Zambia — at what is believed to be roughly 550 meters down.
Although there has been no sign of them, they may have access to an emergency room with food and oxygen.
In comparison to other cases of trapped miners that have amassed international attention, the case has garnered relatively little notice outside of Burkina Faso, where it is being watched closely.
Officials in the country are launching an investigation into the incident and the mine’s management has reportedly been prevented from leaving the country.
“Precautionary measures have been taken to prevent the persons in charge of the mine from leaving the country and instructions have been given firmly to the minister of security for this,” read a statement from the country’s prime minister’s office provided to Radio Canada International.
Known as the Perkoa Mine, the site is about 120 kilometers west of the capital city of Ouagadougou and produces zinc concentrate. It began operation in 2013 and was purchased by Trevali four years later.
According to Al-JazeeraBurkina Faso Prime Minister Alberta Ouedraogo has blamed “irresponsibility” for those in charge at the mine, and said use of dynamite had weakened a part of the mine and enabled 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 fast as we possibly can using all available resources in the country, as well as importing additional machinery and equipment to assist with locating our missing colleagues,” Trevali president and CEO Ricus Grimbeek said in the statement posted online.
“Our thoughts are with our colleagues’ families, 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 been dealing with issues of its own in recent months, thanks to an uptick in attacks by groups linked to al Qaeda and ISIL that have, in turn, spurred protests from people frustrated with the government’s inability to deal with 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 be added to fertilizer.
An update posted to the site hints at the work underway to attempt to reach the eight workers, including rebuilding five kilometers of rough underground road and the installation of 24 electric and diesel pumps to remove the water. In addition to local groups such as the Burkina Faso National Fire Brigade, the mine has also received offers of assistance from Morocco and the European Union.
Questions remain about the history of the mine and the degree to which management was ready for such an event, says Jamie Kneen, a spokesperson for MiningWatch Canada, an Ontario-based NGO that pushes for better environmental and human rights records in the Canadian mining industry. , which also dominates extraction around the world.
The majority of international companies are based in Canada, and the only regulation they face is from local authorities, Kneen said.
“The jury’s out on how this happened,” he said. “From an engineering standpoint, if you’re a mining company, you have a pretty good idea of what the potential worst-case scenarios are, and whether you invest 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 bringing in extra pumps, which means they didn’t have them on hand,” he said.
Flooding is a known risk in mining, said Kneen: The high-grade 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 influxes of water from underground. So it’s common for engineers to calculate the risk of flooding and have pumps ready to go, just in case.
In 2020, global management-consulting firm McKinsey wrote a report that concluded a changing climate would mean a great risk of either water scarcity or flooding for mining operations in the years ahead. Iron ore and zinc mines were considered the most likely to flood, based on location.
As Burkina Faso waits on news of what happened and the fate of the miners, Kneen said it’s an opportunity for Canadians to contemplate where some of our minerals come from.
“That’s the thing we learned from the pandemic, that the people that actually make these things happen are invisible most of the time and the fact that we take all this for granted.”
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