South Africa gold miners seen close to silicosis lawsuit settlement
* About 9 billion rand available
* Number of claimants unknown
* Miners contracted disease in gold mines
By Ed Stoddard
A class action suit brought against gold producers in South Africa is likely to be settled "within months" with 9 billion rand ($755 million) going to miners suffering from fatal lung disease, the chair of an industry group said on Wednesday.
The suit was launched almost six years ago on behalf of miners suffering from silicosis, a fatal lung disease contracted by inhaling silica dust in gold mines.
Almost all of the claimants are black miners from South Africa and neighbouring countries such as Lesotho, whom critics say were not provided with adequate protection during and even after apartheid rule ended in 1994.
"Within a few months we should have a deal … There's been great progress," Graham Briggs, chair of the Working Group on Occupational Lung Disease, told Reuters ahead of a presentation on the topic he was to give at the Mining Indaba 2018 conference in Cape Town.
"The faster we settle, the faster we can pay compensation to those who are entitled to it," he said.
The six companies involved are Harmony Gold, Gold Fields, African Rainbow Minerals, Sibanye-Stillwater, AngloGold Ashanti and Anglo American.
Anglo American no longer has gold assets but historically was a bullion producer.
The six companies said late last year they were making provisions for about 5 billion rand and Briggs said there was close to 4 billion rand in a compensation fund which companies have been contributing to for years. "Close to 9 billion rand will be paid to sufferers of silicosis and occupational tuberculosis," he said. Silicosis causes shortness of breath, a persistent cough and chest pains, and makes people highly susceptible to tuberculosis.
Graham said the looming settlement was a "compromise".
Gold companies have said there are limits to what they can pay in the face of rising costs and often thin margins.
The logistics of the payouts will not be easy as many of the affected miners are in remote rural regions.
"The biggest issue is finding these people so they can be paid," said Briggs, a former chief executive of Harmony.
He said the industry still not know exactly how many claimants were entitled to compensation and estimates have run from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. (Reporting by Ed Stoddard; editing by Alexander Winning and Jason Neely)