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Rio Tinto to keep South African operation shut

Operations include mining, refining and smelting of heavy minerals or ore deposits which are primarily used in industrial applications. (Image courtesy of Rio Tinto.)

Rio Tinto (ASX, LON, NYSE: RIO) said on Monday that 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, will remain halted despite talks with government.

Escalating violence forced the miner to declare a force majeure on customer contracts at RBM and seek help from authorities to control violent community unrest.

The Minerals Council of South Africa condemned violence and law enforcement “failures” and had tried preventing the suspension of activities at the minerals sands project, which employs about 5,000 people.

“Continued acts of lawlessness including blockages of roads, burning of equipment and intimidation of staff at mining operations are not only unacceptable and damaging to the country’s reputation as an investment destination, but also impact the lives and livelihoods of mining employees, their families and surrounding communities,” the council said earlier this month.

A spokesperson for Rio Tinto said on Monday everyone was keen to see the resumption of operations as soon as possible. “But the safety of our people and the security of our operations must be assured before we can return to work,” he said.

The statement refutes KwaZulu-Natal Premier Sihle Zikalala’s comments on July 9. He told local reporters then that RBM would resume operations this week after government and Rio Tinto and RBM’s management had held talks.

History of violence

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, however, casts further doubt on normal resumption of activities at Richards Bay, which includes mining, refining and smelting of heavy minerals or ore deposits.

Rio Tinto to keep South African operation shut
RBM produces predominantly ilmenite, rutile and zircon – materials used in everything from paint to smart phones to sunscreen. (Image courtesy of Rio Tinto.)

RBM 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 our Host Communities Mbonambi, Sokhulu, Mkhwanazi and Dube – which owns 24%. The remaining shares are held in an employee trust.

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