Rio pledges A$25m to support fight against covid-19

Global mining major Rio Tinto has pledged A$25 million in additional funding to support grassroots communities around the world with covid-19 preparedness and recovery efforts, bringing the company’s total voluntary global community contributions to around A$60 million for 2020.

Rio says the additional investment will predominantly focus on value-in-kind opportunities, some of which are well progressed and include:

  • Supply of masks and protective equipment to support emergency and health professionals;
  • Donations to national and local communities, hospitals and international agencies;
  • Provision of ventilation units and temporary medical units in communities;
  • Further investment in education and financial literacy programs as remote learning becomes the global norm for children;
  • Manufacturing of hand sanitizer at certain Rio sites.

The company is actively contributing to covid-19-related best practice forums in health, safety and communities, as established by the International Council of Mining and Metals, it said in a statement.

Rio has already put strict protocols in place globally across its operations, in line with government guidance and directives and advice from leading medical experts. The majority of Rio’s employees work at operations and cannot work from home, so the company has implemented a number of controls to support them, such as travel restrictions, social distancing protocols, personal hygiene, on-call service and leadership on site.

CEO Jean-Sébastien Jacques stated in a media release that the company’s focus is to maintain a “business as usual” approach with safeguards in place, but its first priority remains the health and safety of all employees and communities.

As an organization, Rio Tinto has been active with its humanitarian efforts. Earlier this year, the company donated A$750,000 to the Australian Red Cross to help with disaster relief and recovery efforts for people affected by Australia’s bushfire crisis.

Tiny electronics can still rely on gold

A research paper published in Physical Review Letters reveals that gold can stand up to the strain of the next-generation data processing in electronic devices.

The study was carried out because engineers were starting to worry about the possibility of the tiny gold wires that are used in electronics behaving more like a liquid than a solid as circuits shrink to the nanoscale. 

To run this experiment, the researchers figured out how to pressurize gold particles just 4 nanometers in length — the smallest particles ever measured

Thus, a research team at Stanford University, Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology and Trinity College conducted an experiment in which they used a device known as a diamond anvil cell, normally employed to compress gold. The idea was to put tiny gold particles under extreme pressure, while simultaneously measuring how much that pressure damaged gold’s atomic structure.

The anvil’s pressure dislodged some atoms from the crystal and created tiny defects in the gold. According to the study’s lead scientist, Wendy Gu, such a reaction was expected because a nanoparticle of gold is built like a skyscraper with atoms forming a crystalline lattice of neat rows and columns.

Since the gold particles were only four nanometers in length, to detect the defects Gu and her team shined X-rays through the diamond onto the gold. Defects in the crystal caused the X-rays to reflect at different angles than they would on uncompressed gold.

By measuring variations in the angles at which the X-rays bounced off the particles before and after pressure was applied, the team was able to tell whether the particles retained the deformations or reverted to their original state when pressure was lifted.

“The defects remain after pressure was removed, which told us that gold behaves like a solid even at such scales,” Gu said in a media statement. “For the foreseeable future, gold’s luster will not fade.” 

In summary, the findings mean that chipmakers can know with certainty that they’ll be able to design stable nanodevices using gold for years to come.

Worldwide mining disruptions

(This story was updated March 26)

On a global scale, work is grinding to a halt and operations at mines are being temporarily suspended as majors and minors move to enact measures to protect against the spread of covid-19.

With governments from Africa to Latin America issuing lockdown orders, disruptions to operations and supply chains are affecting the outlook for industrial and precious metals. Most of the majors have now announced halts at gold-copper operations.

  • On March 26, Japan’s Sumitomo Corp. became the latest major diversified miner to temporarily suspend operations at some of its mines to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. The measure affects the company’s San Cristobal silver-zinc-lead mine in Bolivia and Ambatovy nickel mine in Madagascar, as curfews have been imposed in those countries.
  • On March 26, Trevali Mining (TSX:TV) temporarily stopped production at its Caribou zinc-lead-silver mine in Canada’s New Brunswick province as challenges presented by the spread of covid-19 have added to woes posed by weak conditions in the zinc market.
  • Glencore on Thursday March 26 halted a number of smaller mines due to government restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus but added its larger operations were not materially impacted.
  • After announcing a temporary suspension of operations until at least March 31 at its 49%-owned San José mine in Argentina late last week, on March 26, McEwen Mining reported it will also be suspending production at its Black Fox mine in Ontario and Gold Bar in Nevada.
  • On Wednesday, March 25 Codelco, the world’s largest copper miner, said it will temporarily suspend construction on some projects. Codelco said the 15-day suspension applied to remaining work being carried out to make Chuquicamata an underground mine, and projects at an early stage at Rajo Inca and Traspaso Andina.
  • Sibanye-Stillwater announced on Wednesday that it has begun implementing measures to place its South African gold and PGM operations under temporary care and maintenance, in accordance with the nation-wide lockdown for 21 days, effective midnight on Thursday.
  • Miners in Ecuador are now temporarily halting all activity in the country, following the government’s call to stay home.
  • In response to the country’s lockdown effort to slow the spread of covid-19, AngloGold Ashanti announced Tuesday it will temporarily suspend production from its South Africa operations for three weeks as of midnight on March 26.
  • OceanaGold announced March 24 that the Waihi gold operation in the North Island of New Zealand will go on temporary care and maintenance for four weeks in response to measures put in place by the New Zealand government.
  • On Tuesday, Yamana Gold (TSX:YRI, NYSE:AUY) announced that it will scale back operations at its Canadian Malartic mine, Canada’s largest gold mine.
  • Rio Tinto’s Richards Bay Minerals in South Africa will halt production by midnight Thursday. The company will put furnaces on care and maintenance. Rio Tinto will also slow activities at aluminum assets in Canada.
  • Vale’s Voisey’s Bay mine in Canada will be on care and maintenance for four weeks, copper-concentrate production at Long Harbour will be reduced proportionally to the period of the stoppage.
  • Egypt-focused gold miner Centamin said on Wednesday that operations at its Sukari gold mine remained unaffected by covid-19, adding it had stockpiled enough critical supplies to last until the end of June.

Last week, producers across South America, where the bulk of the world’s copper is produced, halted or cut back operations and slowed construction.

  • Hong Kong-listed MMG said last Thursday that operations at its Las Bambas mine, with expected production in the 360kt range for this year had been reduced temporarily after Peru declared a state of emergency on March 16.  
  • Anglo American said it will slow the building of its $5 billion Quellaveco project in Peru and on Thursday the miner said it is scaling down operations at its Los Bronces copper mine in Chile. The company will also reschedule work at mines in countries such as Chile.
  • Teck Resources said on Wednesday it is temporarily suspending construction activities at its Quebrada Blanca Phase 2 (QB2) copper project in Chile. The project is expected to have an initial mine life of 28 years, producing 316,000 tonnes of copper equivalent annually.
  • The world’s no 2 copper producer, Chile’s state-owned Codelco, said on Wednesday it planned to reduce its operations but sales, shipments of copper are not yet hit by coronavirus.
  • BHP said on March 19 that so far the pandemic has not affected its material operations, a day after Reuters reports unionized workers at the Escondida mine in Chile operated by BHP requested a halt to operations unless management begins to implement stricter health and safety measures. Escondida is the largest copper mine in the world by a wide measure and was projected to produce some 1.2 million tonnes this year.
  • Freeport-McMoRan said March 17 that it is suspending operations at its 350kt per year Cerro Verde mine in Peru for at least 15 days.
  • Antofagasta PLC said on Friday it would put parts of its Los Pelambres expansion project on care and maintenance as the Chilean miner reduced the number of staff to reduce risk of coronavirus infection. Los Pelambres had production of 357,800 tonnes in 2018.
  • Glencore’s Mopani copper mines unit in Zambia said on Friday it would review all parts of its business due to the increasing economic uncertainty.

Appian offers credit support for mining companies

Mining investment advisory firm Appian Capital announced on Wednesday that due to the challenges presented by the covid-19 pandemic across the industry, the firm has expanded its investment focus and is ready to provide short-term financing – including credit facilities – to support mining companies with balance sheet pressures and liquidity concerns .

These financial support will be made in addition to the firm’s usual direct equity investment considerations.

Appian says the long-term nature of its private equity funds and the flexibility of its investment mandate allow the company to provide partners within the range of $50 million to $300 million of financial support, including equity, bridge loans and other forms of credit.

Appian’s current investment portfolio consists of six mines that have gone into production. These include Roxgold’s Yaramoko operation in Burkina Faso and Harte Gold’s Sugar Zone project in Ontario.

Lost fragment of ancient continent found at De Beers’ project in Canada

Kimberlite rock samples recovered at De Beers Canada’s Chidliak project in Nunavut unveiled the composition of the North Atlantic craton—an ancient part of Earth’s continental crust that stretches from Scotland to Labrador.

The samples were retrieved by Peregrine Diamonds, a junior exploration company that was acquired by De Beers in 2018, and were later on analyzed by a team of researchers at the University of British Columbia. 

Once at the lab, the group of scientists noticed that the pieces bore a mineral signature that matched other portions of the North Atlantic craton.

Chidliak is located on Canada’s Baffin Island, approximately 120 kilometres northeast of Iqaluit, the capital of the Nunavut territory. To date, 74 kimberlites have been identified on the property

“The mineral composition of other portions of the North Atlantic craton is so unique there was no mistaking it,” geologist Maya Kopylova said in a media statement. “It was easy to tie the pieces together. Adjacent ancient cratons in Northern Canada—in Northern Quebec, Northern Ontario and in Nunavut—have completely different mineralogies.”

Kopylova, who is the lead author of a paper that outlines these findings, explained that cratons are billion-year-old, stable fragments of continental crust —continental nuclei that anchor and gather other continental blocks around them. 

Some of these nuclei are still present at the centre of existing continental plates like the North American plate, but other ancient continents have split into smaller fragments and been re-arranged by a long history of plate movements.

The newly identified fragment covers the diamond-bearing Chidliak kimberlite province in southern Baffin Island. It adds roughly 10%  to the known expanse of the North Atlantic craton.

“With these samples, we’re able to reconstruct the shapes of ancient continents based on deeper, mantle rocks,” Kopylova said. “We can now understand and map not only the uppermost skinny layer of Earth that makes up 1% of the planet’s volume, but our knowledge is literally and symbolically deeper. We can put together 200-kilometre deep fragments and contrast them based on the details of the deep mineralogy.”

In exchange for the samples, the UBC research team provided De Beers with information about the deep diamondiferous mantle that is central to mapping the part of the craton with the higher changes to support a successful diamond mine.

Global copper production disruptions

Producers across South America, where the bulk of the world’s copper is produced, have halted or cut back operations and slowed construction projects due to restrictions caused by coronavirus.

  • Hong Kong-listed MMG said on Thursday that operations at its Las Bambas mine, with expected production in the 360kt range for this year had been reduced temporarily after Peru declared a state of emergency.  
  • Anglo American earlier this week said it will slow the building of its $5 billion Quellaveco project in Peru and on Thursday the miner said it is scaling down operations at its Los Bronces copper mine in Chile.
  • Teck Resources said on Wednesday it is temporarily suspending construction activities at its Quebrada Blanca Phase 2 (QB2) copper project in Chile. The project is expected to have an initial mine life of 28 years, producing 316,000 tonnes of copper equivalent annually.
  • Aurania Resources (TSXV: ARU) decided to remove workers from its Lost Cities project located in Ecuador’s southeastern province of Morona-Santiago. Exploration at Lost Cities-Cutucu recently identified 64 individual targets, 31 of which were categorized as high priority for follow-up.
  • The world’s no 2 copper producer, Chile’s state-owned Codelco, said on Wednesday it planned to reduce its operations while the world’s top miner of the metal, BHP said so far the pandemic has not affected output. Reuters reports unionized workers at the Escondida mine in Chile operated by BHP requested a halt to operations unless management begins to implement stricter health and safety measures. Escondida is the largest copper mine in the world by a wide measure and was projected to produce some 1.2 million tonnes this year.
  • Freeport-McMoRan said this week it is suspending operations at its 350kt per year Cerro Verde mine in Peru for at least 15 days.
  • Antofagasta PLC said on Friday it would put parts of its Los Pelambres expansion project on care and maintenance as the Chilean miner reduced the number of staff to reduce risk of coronavirus infection. Los Pelambres had production of 357,800 tonnes in 2018.
  • Glencore’s Mopani copper mines unit in Zambia said on Friday it would review all parts of its business due to the increasing economic uncertainty.

In Asia and North America:

  • Work at the Oyu Tolgoi copper-gold mine, with annual production of 146.3kt in Mongolia has slowed because of government curbs to curtail the spread of a coronavirus, Rio Tinto said on Monday.
  • Vale reduced activity and output at its Voisey Bay copper mine in Canada as a precaution to protect nearby indigenous communities from coronavirus. Voisey Bay produces 6,000 tonnes-per-day.

GSA Foundation names new president

The Geological Society of America Foundation (GSAF) announced Friday it has appointed Dr. Christopher Grant Maples as its next president.

Maples replaces Dr. Jack Hess, who has been the president of The Foundation since January 2015. Maples will join GSAF in July.

Maples earned his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees at Indiana University and his B.S. at West Georgia College. He has held senior leadership positions at both geoscience centers (Department Chair, Geological Sciences, Indiana University; executive vice president for research, Desert Research Institute) and technology-focused universities (president, Oregon Institute of Technology; interim chancellor, Missouri University of Science and Technology).

He also has served at the National Science Foundation and the Kansas Geological Survey. In addition, he has some 16 years of continual advanced leadership training at several prestigious institutions. He is a GSA Fellow and a Fellow of the Paleontological Society.

Major MSHA reorg: New map shows three enforcement regions

As part of its “Blurring the Lines” initiative, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) is now implementing plans to dramatically change its internal organization for enforcement and has released a map showing the new hierarchy.

Before, individual coal and metal/non-metal districts reported directly to a coal or metal/non-metal administrator at headquarters in Arlington. Now, MSHA will divide the country into three regions, with each district (whether coal or metal/non-metal) reporting to a single regional administrator.

Source: MSHA

The geographic regions will be Western, Central, and Eastern. In keeping with the Blurring initiative, each region will have a mix of both coal and M/NM mines. District managers will report to the region’s regional administrator. In the new scheme, districts will be re-named simply after the city where they are located (e.g., Warrendale).

While Tim Watkins will remain the national Administrator for Enforcement, his two deputies will now become two of the three regional administrators. Brian Goepfert, currently the deputy for M/NM enforcement, will move to Denver to be the Western Regional Administrator. Dave Weaver, currently the deputy for coal, will move to Dallas to be the Central Regional Administrator. MSHA currently has a job posting online to hire a third person as the Eastern Regional Administrator. It may appoint someone to fill the slot temporarily in the interim.

While this changes the oversight above the district level, MSHA does not currently anticipate moving more mines from one district to another after the changes made in the last couple years. There are currently 213 “cross-over” mines that have been moved across the divide between coal and M/NM (coal mines overseen by a metal/non-metal district and vice versa).

There is no particular date when the new regional structure will officially launch. Rather, it is rolling out continuously and gradually as various parts – especially the map and the new regional administrators – fall into place.

Will it make a difference to most mine operators?

While this is a big change for MSHA’s hierarchy, it remains to be seen whether it will have impacts on the ground that are noticeable to the average mine in the normal course of business. In most enforcement matters, mine operators do not involve MSHA personnel above the district office level. Moreover, having regional administrators closer to the districts could mean they are able to keep a closer eye on what takes place in the field. That could be helpful, especially in select areas where district management has struggled.

By contrast to this latest regional change, other Blurring changes likely have had much more day-to-day significance. The previous steps to move inspectors and districts across the divide between coal and metal/non-metal raised concerns that MSHA needed to roll out significant training and orientation to be sure inspectors and districts were familiar with the mines they are inspecting. Likewise, as the coal industry has declined in activity, operators have seen surplus coal inspectors being shifted to the metal/non-metal industry even though there has not been any need for more inspection time at M/NM mines. As a result, some operators have reported seeing more inspectors spending more inspection time at their facilities though safety and health performance remains consistent.

Avi Meyerstein is a Washington, D.C.-based partner with the law firm Husch Blackwell LLP. He leads the firm’s Safety & Health group.

Mining ‘moderately exposed’ to effects of coronavirus

The metals and mining sector will be moderately exposed as a result of the ongoing coronavirus outbreak worldwide, said Moody’s in its latest report on global sectors based on data collected as of mid-March.

The fall in commodity prices will have an adverse effect on those in the industry. However, analysts at Moody’s believe many producers have improved since the last commodity slump in 2015-2016, which caused significant hardship for smaller, less-diversified companies and drove a steep rise in the number of defaults. Now, more global, higher-rated companies are in general better able to withstand a market downturn.

The global spread of coronavirus will slow economic growth significantly, which will, in turn, amplify its effect on several sectors, Moody’s asserts.

The firm recently revised its GDP growth forecasts for the advanced G-20 economies to 1.0% in 2020, down from 1.7% in 2019, and for the emerging G-20 to 3.8% in 2020, down from 4.2% in 2019, including a substantive slowdown in China. The baseline scenario assumes a normalization of economic activity in the second half of the year.

Moody’s cautions that the ability of some companies to withstand the effects of the virus will depend on its duration, and as events unfold on a daily basis, there is a higher than usual degree of uncertainty around its forecasts and assessment will evolve over time with new developments.

The following chart details the level of exposure for the major sectors around the world based on Moody’s research.

Australia commits A$29.5m for research on mine closures

Australia’s federal government announced the launching of a new A$29.5-million Cooperative Research Centre aimed at creating research opportunities to support regional communities facing mine closures.

The CRC-TiME brings together 50 mining companies such as BHP and Newmont Goldcorp, the Minerals Council of Australia, mining equipment, technology and services companies, regional development organisations, local, State and Commonwealth governments and research partners

The CRC on Transformations in Mining Economies (CRC-TiME) will be led by the University of Western Australia and the University of Queensland, with support from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation CSIRO. Scientists across these institutions have expertise in areas such as mining technology, environment, systems integration, and data processing and management.

“CRC TiME has the potential to create hundreds of new opportunities and regional jobs through the implementation of restoration activities and increased supply of closure and post-closure products and services,” Guy Boggs, CEO of the new centre, said in a media statement.

In particular, CSIRO will assist the CRC in establishing nationally recognised demonstration sites where technology and solutions can be shown to bring positive benefits to the community and to mine closures.

“This effort will support regions to transition to a more prosperous and sustainable post-mining future, acknowledging the need for whole-of-community benefit, including indigenous futures, environmental restoration, and economic outcomes,” Jason Kirby, the senior scientist that leads CSIRO’s involvement in the CRC, said in the press brief.