Strike at Barrick’s Veladero mine suspended

Stoppage comes on the heels of cyanide spill in March that forced partial operations halt

Workers at Barrick Gold’s (TSX, NYSE:ABX) Veladero mine in Argentina on Sunday embarked on an unplanned strike over better working conditions, but suspended the labour action 35 hours later as talks to end the dispute continue.

A total of 2,500 were involved and a spokesperson for the union representing 1,500 members at the mine, Argentina’s biggest gold operation, said workers "returned to work after authorities set a negotiating period of 15 working days," but without a resolution by June 19 the strike will resume.

In a brief statement, Barrick said is already in talks with union representatives to find a “timely resolution” to the situation. Veladero has recently been the focus of controversy due to a cyanide spill in March, the third such incident in less than 18 months

Construction works in the heap leach valley, necessary for the resumption of full operations at Veladero following the March spill, are not affected by the work stoppage, the company said.

The labour action is just one of several incidents that have affected the regular operation of the mine in the past 18 months.

The world’s No.1 producer of the precious metal by value also noted is still planning to resume normal leaching activities at Veladero in the second half of June, subject to approval by local authorities.

The labour action is just one of several incidents affecting the regular operation of the mine in the past year and a half.

In January 2016, the Toronto-based miner had to pay a 145.7m pesos fine (about $9.8m at the time) over a cyanide spill at the same mine.

When Barrick announced such fine, it said it had undertaken a plan to strengthen controls and safeguards at the mine, including increased water monitoring.

A few months later, however, falling ice damaged a pipe carrying process solution in the leach pad area, causing a second leak. Normal operations only resumed more than a month later, in October.

The third cyanide spill happened in March this year and while remedial works were done promptly, Barrick has been unable to bring Veladero back to normal operations just yet.

To make things worse, the company may soon face “negligence” charges over the latest spill, as Barrick allegedly missed deadlines on three orders from provincial authorities, including replacing the pipes that decoupled in March.

Judge Pablo Oritja, who is overseeing the case, said earlier this month the unfulfilled orders were what triggered the ongoing probe into the company's past negligence, which may end with Barrick paying a new fine, a restriction over operations at Veladero, or both.

The Canadian miner sold in April a 50% interest in Veladero, one Argentina’s largest gold mines, to China’s Shandong Gold Group in a transaction worth $960 million.

The mine produced 544,000 ounces last year and has proven and probable mineral reserves estimated in 6.7 million ounces of gold as of December 31, 2016, according to the company's website.