Rio Tinto said on Tuesday it has begun the process of resuming operations at its Richards Bay Minerals (RBM) project in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, which was shut down in late June following the murder of the top manager.
The company declared a force majeure on customer contracts the day after Nico Swart, a general manager for RBM mining operational services, was fatally shot on his way to work.
It said the measure was a response to escalating violence affecting the security of its employees and facilities.
Rio Tinto also shut one furnace due to depleted stockpiles of feedstock and limit the long-term impacts of a shutdown on RBM’s furnaces
The force majeure remains in place, the miner said, adding that operations would be ramping up as soon as possible, while the impact from the suspension was yet to be evaluated.
The development follows a stabilization of the security situation around the mine, the company said.
The Richards Bay mineral sands project comprises mining, refining and smelting of heavy minerals or ore deposits.
The Richards Bay mineral sands mine – in which Rio holds a 74% interest – has seen several violent incidents over the years.
Operations were halted twice in 2018 due to violent protests by contractors, and in 2019, RBM was forced to suspend activities again following the shooting of one of its employees.
Despite Rio approving the $463 million Zulti South project to extend the mine life, the expansion has been on hold since 2019 due to unresolved security issues.
In April, RBM officials said they were in talks with the country’s authorities to “permanently address violent protests around its operations before resuming work on the Zulti South project.”
The latest incident cast further doubt on normal resumption of activities at Richards Bay, but Rio said Tuesday’s announcement followed the stabilization of the security situation around the mine.
RBM includes mining, refining and smelting of heavy minerals or ore deposits. It produces predominantly ilmenite, rutile and zircon – materials used in everything from paint to smart phones to sunscreen.
Richards Bay RBM is a joint venture between Rio Tinto and Blue Horizon – a consortium of investors and host communities Mbonambi, Sokhulu, Mkhwanazi and Dube – which owns 24%. The remaining shares are held in an employee trust.