The ongoing outbreak of Ebola virus infections in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria is cause for serious concern on the part of mining companies operating in the region. As of August 23, the World Health Organization (WHO) was reporting more than 2,600 confirmed, probable, and suspect Ebola infections and more than 1,400 deaths. However, the organization acknowledged that the magnitude of the outbreak could not be exactly quantified.
"Quantities of staff, supplies, and equipment, including personal protective equipment, cannot keep up with the need. Hospital and diagnostic capacities have been overwhelmed," WHO stated in a situation assessment issued August 22. As of that date, no cases of Ebola infections had been reported directly from mining operations; however, several companies with operations in the region issued statements regarding current and potential future impacts of the epidemic.
On August 8, ArcelorMittal, which is currently mining and shipping 5 million mt/y of iron ore from its operations in Liberia and is working on a project to expand production to 15 million mt/y, reported that contractors working on the expansion project had declared force majeure due to the Ebola virus outbreak and were moving people out of the country. The company was assessing the potential impact on the project schedule, while employees were working to secure equipment and carrying out other critical activities related to logistics, engineering, and procurement. As of that date, the company's current mining operations were continuing as normal.
Bill Scotting, chief executive of Arcelor-Mittal Mining, said, "Clearly the priority for Liberia and other affected countries right now is to contain and ultimately stop this current outbreak of Ebola. We are providing full support to the government in this regard and taking every precaution to protect all of our employees on the ground in Liberia."
Also on August 8, Aureus Mining reported that construction was continuing at its New Liberty gold project in Liberia but that non-essential staff had been granted leave, including the exploration team. "Aureus has established and implemented the appropriate precautionary measures and contingency plans to ensure the company, its employees, contractors, and visitors are not placed under unnecessary risks," the Aureus statement said. "Such precautionary measures include control of access to Aureus' operations; temperature screening; education and collaboration with local villages and village elders; detailed and regular communication with employees, contractors, and visitors; heightened medical provisions and medical assistance at the New Liberty medical clinic; and travel restrictions."
Sierra Rutile, which operates a large mineral sands mining operation in Sierra Leone, reported on August 5 that initial Ebola cases in the country had been located about 300 km from its working area and that the epidemic had not posed an immediate threat to its personnel. However, the company has taken precautionary measures to reduce the risks posed to its employees, contractors and visitors.
These measures include restrictions on travel by Sierra Rutile personnel to affected areas; limitation on access to Sierra Rutile sites by nonessential visitors; screening at Sierra Rutile operations for early signs of the virus, such as raised temperature; implementation of compulsory chlorinated hand-wash facilities at all entry points to operations and other selected locations, including catering facilities; and communication to employees and contractors on warning signs and actions if symptoms occur.
London Mining, which operates the Marampa iron ore mine in Sierra Leone, said in reporting its first-half 2014 financial results that production to date had not been impacted by the Ebola outbreak but that the company had begun to experience disruption to the supply chain and to a number of services. "We continue to be vigilant about keeping our employees healthy and are working closely with the Sierra Leonean government and health agencies in this difficult time," the company reported.
While hope remained that the Ebola epidemic could be contained, indications were that it would get worse before it gets better. WHO reported: "In parts of Liberia, a phenomenon is occurring that has never before been seen in an Ebola outbreak. As soon as a new treatment facility is opened, it is immediately filled with patients, many of whom were not previously identified. This phenomenon strongly suggests the existence of an invisible caseload of patients who are not being detected by the surveillance system."
ArcelorMittal said contractors working on an expansion project at its Yekepa iron ore mine, shown here, in Liberia had declared force majeure due to the Ebola virus outbreak and were moving people out of the country. However, the company’s existing mining operations were reported to be continuing as normal. (Photo courtesy of ArcelorMittal)