Nevada trails other mining regions in response to spread of COVID-19

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(Photo: U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.)

As COVID-19 spreads globally many communities and mine workers are demanding more stringent protections be put in place in the mining industry. Unfortunately, mining continues largely in business as usual mode in Nevada. New projects and expansions are still being permitted, despite the fact that these unprecedented times limit legally mandated public engagement. Construction of new projects continues and workers continue to be at risk at active mines. 

Some regions across the globe have made the decision that this moment is about protecting people rather than companies, and have implemented strategies such as placing mines in a state of care and maintenance for the duration of the emergency. With rural counties in Nevada seeing increases in COVID-19 cases, it is past time for Nevada to seriously consider what the leadership in other mining regions are doing to protect communities and workers. 

The virus is spreading into remote areas, and mine operations provide many opportunities for transmission. On March 24th, the United Mine Workers of America issued a letter detailing concerns of confined work environments, and urging that the most basic of measures such as increased disinfecting and protective gear be provided to mine workers. The letter references another key consideration in protecting mine workers in that these workers are more likely to have underlying respiratory conditions which make them more vulnerable. 

Another risk posed is that mining workforces are often highly transient. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo a two day total lockdown temporarily ceasing all mining was ordered in Haut-Katanga province after two cases were confirmed. Glencore’s Kamoto Copper Company (KCC) sent 26 international workers back to their nation of origin in a nearby province. Aggressive measures to have been taken elsewhere to address the mining industries risk of contributing to the spread of COVID-19. 

Some of the biggest companies have all suspended some operations; Anglo American PLC, Newmont Corp., and Rio Tinto PLC have all suspended projects or stopped some mining elsewhere.

Workers and surrounding communities are having to step up to demand safety when action isn’t taken. Chief Simon Mervyn of the Na-Cho Nyak Dun First Nation in Canada has urged the regional government to place mines in care and maintenance along with other stronger measures to protect Indigenous People from COVID-19 spread through mining. 

Unionized workers in Chile at BHP’s Escondida Mine are threatening forced closure if minimum health and safety measures are not taken. The Escondida Mine is the world’s largest copper mine, and the union representing the workers has raised concerns about the workers being in close proximity. Many Chilean communities suffer dangerous air quality as a result of the mining industry. Mayors and local officials in Chile have referenced this issue in urging for a nationwide quarantine similar to Argentina. 

After three deaths and 128 confirmed cases Argentina took action. A government mandated quarantine in Argentina has forced the mining industry to suspend construction and production with mines placed in a state of care and maintenance during the emergency. This has halted construction of Lithium America’s Caucharí-Olaroz lithium mine which brings us back to Nevada because Lithium Nevada, a subsidiary of Lithium Americas, is pursuing a lithium project in Nevada.

We are far beyond the impacts that led to Argentina taking action. Nevada currently has nearly 1,500 cases and 38 deaths at the time of this writing, with the numbers increasing exponentially. When people have stepped up demanding community safety over corporate profit, some of the biggest mine operators and some companies which also operate in Nevada have been able to take necessary precautions in light of this global crisis. 

It is likely too late to halt significant transmission through Nevada’s rural communities, though now is the time to take action and look to best practices that have been successful globally. At least one mining related positive case has been identified at Nevada Gold’s Turquoise Ridge Mine. Placing mining operations into a state of care and maintenance would protect rural communities and workers. It is time Gov. Sisolak and Rep. Mark Amodei to weigh in on this problem affecting many of their constituents.

Ian Bigley
Ian Bigley is the Mining Justice Organizer at the Progressive Leadership Alliance, and a lifelong resident of Reno, NV.