Arctic Mines Facing Covid-19: Global Pandemic, Specific Strategies

Magali Vullierme

Magali Vullierme is an associate researcher at the CEARC (University of Paris-Saclay), the Observatoire de la Politique et de la Sécurité de l’Arctique (University of Ottawa) and the Conseil québécois d’Études géopolitiques (Université Laval). She is also a member of the GDR Arctique (CNRS, France).

vol 7 n1, 2021

Summary

This contribution is a brief analysis of covid-19 first wave’s impacts on six Arctic mining sites located in Nunavik, in Greenland and in Sweden. Publicly available data varies greatly from one mining company to the other. Apart for two mines, no cases or suspicions of covid-19 were detected during the first wave – or, if any, were not publicly communicated by the other mines. All of the mine sites but one were impacted by covid-19 first wave, through lock down or shut down for various periods of time. Apart for some similarities, each mine implemented its own strategy crisis, depending on its location and its employees’ situation.

Keywords: Arctic, mining, covid-19.

Résumé

Cette contribution est une brève analyse des impacts de la première vague du covid-19 sur six sites miniers arctiques, situés au Nunavik, au Groenland et en Suède. Les données accessibles au public varient considérablement d’une société minière à l’autre. À l’exception de deux mines, aucun cas ou suspicion de covid-19 n’a été détecté au cours de la première vague – ou, le cas échéant, cela n’a pas été publiquement communiqué par les autres mines. Tous les sites miniers étudiés sauf un ont été confinés ou arrêtés pendant de plus ou moins longues périodes par la première vague du covid-19. Hormis quelques similitudes, chaque mine a mis en œuvre sa propre stratégie de crise, en fonction de sa localisation et de la situation de ses employés.

Mots clés : Arctique, mines, covid-19.

Introduction: Globalized World, Globalized Pandemic

Northern communities are characterized by their remoteness from health centres and hospitals and by a high population rate per households, increasing the risk of respiratory diseases propagation. Incidence rate for certain types of respiratory illnesses are substantially elevated among residents of Inuit Nunangat, compared to residents in the rest of Canada (Duarte, 2018). As an infectious respiratory disease, the risk of propagation of covid-19 in northern communities is very much higher than in the rest of Canada. In order to mitigate the risk of covid-19 propagation in Nunavik and protect Indigenous communities, regional and provincial authorities decided to shutdown Quebec northern region at an early stage of the sanitary crisis. This shutdown impacted mine workers.

« Silos within a silo », mines remoteness is exacerbated in the North, increasing the potential risk of covid-19. Indeed, mines’ employees live 24/7 on site for rotational period, with everything provided, from shops to sports activities to doctors. Intercultural interactions within employees also pose a risk of transmission and propagation of covid-19 to Northern communities between, on the one hand, non-Inuit employees coming to the mine from populated Southern cities where the virus circulates, and, on the other hand, Inuit employees coming from Northern communities where the virus was not (yet) circulating.

How has the covid-19 health crisis been handled in Arctic mining sites? What impacts have the covid-19 crisis had on Arctic mining sites?

This article focus primarily on Nunavik mines, with a comparison of mines in Greenland and in Sweden from March 2020 to August 2020. Nunavik and Greenland had similar approaches to the covid-19 crisis. Both were completely shut down, respectively on March 24[1] and March 21 (McGwin, 2020), and implemented various containment regulations (isolation, lockdown, alcohol bans, travel ban between communities) – Nuuk, the Greenlandic capital, was shut off from the rest of the island as of March 18 (Breum, 2020). These lockdowns were considered as an absolute necessity to prevent the spread of covid-19, due to the very limited number of beds in intensive cares. Nunavik commands only four beds in intensive cares for 14,000 inhabitants – two in Kuujjuaq and the other two in Puvirnituq. Greenland benefits also from only four beds in intensive cares for 56,000 inhabitants, all of them in Greenlandic single main hospital located in Nuuk (Breum, 2020). On the contrary, Sweden is one of the few northern country that chose not to lockdown or impose curfews. The country introduced voluntary social-distancing rules, home-working and recommendations for people to avoid public transport (Kindred, 2020), amongst other compulsory measures (ban on gatherings of more than 50 people, restrictions on visiting care homes, table-only service in bars and restaurants, avoid non-essential travel, and isolation if symptoms) (Brennan, 2020).

To offer a first assessment of mines crisis management strategies, I scrutinized six mines, two for each regions: Raglan and Nunavik Nickel for Nunavik; Aappaluttoq and Qaqortorsuaq for Greenland; Kiruna and Malmberget for Sweden.

  1. The context of Nunavik’s mines

Even though mining exploration (nickel, asbestos, copper) started in the 1970s in Nunavik, its development was launched ten years later when a geological mapping program revealed the region’s high potential for rare metals, such as platinum and palladium (Philie, 2013; Rodon & Lévesque, 2015; Têtu & Lasserre 2017; Têtu, Pelletier & Lasserre, 2015; Vullierme 2018). To date, two mines are exploited in Nunavik: Raglan and Nunavik Nickel[2].

Raglan Mine is located near the Pingualuit Provincial Park, Ungava Peninsula, Nunavik, Quebec (Philie, 2013; Blais, 2015). The project was launched on February 28, 1995 with the signature of the Raglan Agreement between Société Minière Raglan du Québec Ltd (today “Raglan Mine”) and five Inuit partners: the Makivik Corporation, the two closest Inuit communities of Salluit and Kangiqsujuaq, and their respective landholding corporation (Qaqqalik LHC and Nunaturlik LHC) (Glencore Xstrata, 2020). The Raglan Agreement is based on an operating period of fifteen years, and include an open pit mine, accommodation, a concentrator, a port and an airstrip. Acquired in 2006 by the Swiss company Xstrata from Falconbridge, the company was renamed Glencore Xstrata following a new merger in May 2013 (Têtu & Lasserre 2017; Têtu, Pelletier & Lasserre, 2015; Vullierme 2018).

At the very beginning of the covid-19 crisis, when the virus was supposedly contained in China, Raglan mine implemented preventive protocol, asking employees not feeling well to stay at home, and implementing social distancing, hands washing, reduction of employees and closing of canteen and sports centres. On March 23, 2020 (Mine Raglan, 2020; Blais, 2020), Raglan mine stayed in activity but implemented preventive protocol. Following a request of Public Health Agency of Canada, Nunavik employees were sent home or not called back to the mine site. On March 24, 2020, the Government of Quebec decided to stop non-essentials business. As a result, Glencore Xstrata closed the mine until April 13th. On April 15, 2020, following the Government of Quebec decision to declare mining as essential businesses, Raglan mine progressively reopened. This decision was heavily criticized by Makivik, which underlined the “colonialist” taste of this unilateral decision taken by Southerner authorities (Makivik, 2020). On April 20, 2020, Glencore Xstrata underlined again that employees living in Nunavik have to stay home. However, about 100 Inuit employees living in the South were allowed to go back to work. Starting on September 1st, the additional 134 employees living in Nunavik gradually started to come back to work on the mine site (Rogers, 2020a). This decision was made by the Nunavik Regional Emergency Preparedness Advisory Committee (N-REPAC), along with regional health and community authorities and Raglan mine.

Nunavik Nickel is located 20 kilometres south of Raglan nickel mine at approximately 100 kilometres (62 mi) south of Deception Bay. In 2008, Canadian Royalties Inc. signed the Nunavik Nickel Agreement using Raglan Agreement model (Rogers, 2020a). In 2009, the mine was acquired at 25% by Gold Brook Venture and at 75% by Jilin Jien Nickel Co and in 2012, Jilin Jien Nickel Co. acquired the remaining 25% of the mine, becoming sole owner of Nunavik Nickel. Jilin Jien Nickel Co. kept the name of Canadian Royalties Inc. (Têtu & Lasserre 2017; Têtu, Pelletier & Lasserre, 2015).[3]

Interestingly, the company was the first to release a press release linked to covid-19 as soon as January 31st, 2020 (Canadian Royalties, 2020a). Then, Canadian Royalties communicated almost every day from March 12 to March 26, 2020 (Canadian Royalties, 2020b). “Aggressive triage” was undertaken before welcoming employees on planes and at the site arrival. On March 21, 2020, Nunavik residents employed by the mine were asked to stay home or were sent home (Canadian Royalties, 2020c). According to a source, around 50 Inuit employees work directly for Nunavik Nickel or for one of its on-site contractors (Rogers, 2020b). On March 22, 2020, the mine underlined that Inuit employees would receive a payment representing 66,67% of their usual salary (Canadian Royalties, 2020d). On March 25, 2020, Jilin Jien Nickel Co. announced that all non-essentials employees were sent home, keeping the only strict minimum number of employees on site (Canadian Royalties, 2020e). Nunavik Nickel then re-opened mid- April although its Nunavik-based employees were asked to stay at home. As a result, Canadian Royalties had to replace them with southern workers on a temporary basis (Rogers, 2020c). However, as the company stated, “Inuit employees will all be coming back. Initially scheduled on September 1st, their return was delayed due to the mine annual maintenance from September 9th to 18th. That same day, two workers were tested positive to covid-19 – pushing this return further back. Importantly, this information was not made public by Canadian Royalties but by the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services. On the 21st, the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services underlined that “investigation is now complete: the two workers are not contagious. Further analysis was done and finally, no one has covid-19. Workers with positive tests were flown out, following the mine protocol before the investigation was complete, but represent no risk of infecting anyone” (Rogers, 2020c). As of September 29th, Nunavik employees of Canadian Royalties were finally allowed to return to work.

Since early July, Nunavik Nickel has on-site covid-19 testing capabilities. Just a couple of month later, at the end of September, the company has reportedly carried out more than 5,000 tests on its employees (Rogers, 2020b). In addition, Canadian Royalties and Glencore Raglan are sharing a chartered plane to transport employees from the region to the mine site. Seats on those flights will be reserved to ensure spacing and tracing capability (Rogers, 2020c).

  • Context of other mining sites

2.1. Greenland

In Greenland, as in Nunavik, two mining sites are active: Aappaluttoq (or « Greenland Ruby ») a ruby mine and Qaqortorsuaq (or « White Mountain ») an anorthosite mine. As of June, Greenland has had a total of 14 confirmed reported covid-19 infections, all in Nuuk. All people had recovered and no new confirmed cases were reported between June and September (Quinn, 2020).

The Aappaluttoq/Greenland Ruby mine is a pink sapphires and rubies mine, sitting around 250km southwest of Nuuk. It is owned by LNS, a Norway-based company (Jogensen, 2017). During covid-19 first wave, when Greenland went on total lockdown, Greenland Ruby “mine workers had to stay at the mine (…). No people could go in or out”, until May, when Greenland opened up “travels between its small cities but remained isolated from international travellers” (Vesilind, 2020). According to a publication from July, 35 Greenlanders are employed in Aappaluttoq mine[4] – given it is “completely lead and operated by local Greenlandic people” (Diamonds Do Good, 2020) and the “vast majority of Greenland Ruby’s workforce is made up of Greenlandic people” (Greenland Ruby, 2020b).

Qaqortorsuaq/White Mountain is located on the central West coast of Greenland and owned by a Canadian company, the Hudson Resources Inc. During covid-19 first wave, a stimulus plan was announced on June 11, 2020. Two funds invested into capital: Cordiant Capital (a Montreal-based company) and Apex Asset Management AG (a Scandinavian company based in Switzerland) (GlobeNewswire, 2020a).

In September 2020, only two corporate press release were published on Hudson Resources’ website. According to the first one, dated March 19th, the majority of employees was sent home. Only ten of them were kept on site for the following four weeks. The mine stated that “all employees of Hudson Resources Inc. and Hudson Greenland A/S are currently healthy, but two cases of Covid-19 have been reported in Greenland’s capital of Nuuk” (Hudson Resources, 2020a; GlobeNewswire, 2020b)). According to the second one, released July 15th, the company was about to re-open the White Mountain anorthosite mine. In addition, Hudson Resources hired and mobilized operations personnel to the site with the objective of achieving normal operations in August. This restart was decided after Hudson and the “Greenlandic government agreed to Covid-19 protocols which allow the company to re-commence activities safely while protecting local communities in Greenland” (Hudson Resources, 2020b). Those protocols implies limited activities with strict controls and no travel allowed in or out of the mine. As Jim Cambon, President and Director of Hudson Resources Inc., stated: “this support from the [Greenlandic] government to the mining industry reinforces our position that Greenland is one of the best jurisdictions in the world to work in and we remain fully committed to building and growing our business here” (GlobeNewswire, 2020c).

2.2. Sweden

In Sweden, two iron ore mines, located beyond the Arctic Circle, were selected: Kiruna, an open pit and underground mine, and Malmberget. Both are owned and operated by Luossavaara-Kiirunavaara AB (LKAB). In its interim financial report for the second quarter of 2020 (published 13th of August 2020), LKAB stated that its global production[5] volume decreased by 0.2 Mt in a year-on-year comparison. According to the company, this decrease derives mainly from extended maintenance shutdowns and, to a certain extent, production disruption due to Covid-19 (Mining Technology, 2020).

Kiruna’s mine released a statement underlying that the evolution of the situation was under scrutiny on March 17th, 2020. On April 8th, 2020, a press release underlined that the production was on-going, since mining sector was qualified as essential by the Swedish government; in addition, paid leaves were offered to employees who wanted to help medical units in the country. On May 18th, 2020, an earthquake of magnitude 4.1 occurred in the mine, which was evacuated and closed to be secured and restored. “70 percent of production has resumed in the mine, but extensive inspection and restoration work remains to be done before full production capacity can be achieved” (LKAB, 2020a). Accordingly, corporate press release relayed more information on this earthquake than on covid-19 crisis.

In Malmberget, measures were taken on June 8th after a shift team of the pelletising plant showed symptoms of covid-19. The entire shift team, along with individuals who had been in contact with this team, were placed in quarantine. Mid-June 2020, an increase of covid-19 cases in Malmberget village was also recorded (LKAB, 2020b). At this date, 30 covid-19 confirmed case and 60 inhabitants were isolated. Since 1 100 Malmberget inhabitants were employed by the mine at that time, this outbreak directly impacted the mine as not enough regular employees were available to secure the entire site. As a result, one of the processing plants, MK3, was temporarily closed on June 16 for four days. As of September 24th, this was the last corporate press release directly linked to covid-19.

  • Implemented Strategies to Face the Pandemic

In most cases, limited publicly available communication and limited access to information due to linguistics further complicated the comparative analysis. A number of points can nevertheless be drawn about strategies implemented to face covid-19 crisis management by companies.

The main impact of covid-19 was to slow down mining operations at their bare minimum in three out of six mines analysed here. In Raglan, Nunavik Nickel and White Mountain only the minimum necessary staff remained at sites to ensure the safety and survival of operations from mid- to late March. Due to technical reasons, total shutdown of operations was impossible to implement. In Malmberget, one of the plant was shot down for only four days in June due to a suspicion of covid-19 in one team. Greenland Ruby’s operations seem not to have suffered from covid-19 since employees had to stay at the mine during Greenland’s lockdown. Kiruna’s mine was shut down, but not as a result of covid-19. Indeed, apart from Nunavik Nickel and Malmberget mines, no cases or suspicions of covid-19 were detected in the four other mines analysed – or, if there were any, those were not publicly communicated by the companies.

To address the crisis, different responses were chosen by States and by mines companies. Indeed, even when a containment policy was implement at a State-level – as in Nunavik and Greenland –, mining companies have had different answers. For instance, in Nunavik, Inuit employees were repatriated in priority from Raglan and Nunavik Nickel mines. However, the two Greenlandic mines, Greenland Ruby and White Mountain, implemented different measures. Following Greenland’s strict lockdown resulting in banning travels between communities, Greenland Ruby mine workers had no choice but to stay on site. However, every White Mountain employees but ten where sent home. When no lockdown was implemented by the State, as in Sweden, company policies differ from one mine to another – even when mines are operated by the same company. Indeed, LKAB partially closed Malmberget’s mine for four days due to suspicion of covid-19 in one of the mine’s team and due to an increase number of cases among Malmberget inhabitants. However, Kiruna’s press releases do not mention covid-19 suspicion or cases, either in the town or within employee. As stated above, Kiruna mine was shut down, but not due to covid-19. No information was found on potential Indigenous employees’ repatriation in Sweden. Similarly, in the case of a state-implemented lockdown, companies took additional measures. For instance, employees that needed to be on-site had to stay under self-isolation for 14-days before arrival; the same requirement was asked to employees who had been traveling abroad. Mining companies implemented various measures in their sites, from lockdowns (no entry/no exit except for supplying) to isolation barracks or shutdown of social places (restaurant, gym etc.). Apart from Nunavik Nickel, no further information linked to on-site testing was reported for the other mines sites[6].

Public access to crisis communication varies greatly from one company to another. A lot of publicly available communication was provided on-line by Glencore Xstrata (Raglan) compared to the other mines. However, this might result from linguistic limitations regarding the Greenlandic and the Swedish mines. Accordingly, crisis communication channels varies widely. Raglan communicated mainly on Facebook, with publicly available posts; no such posts were found for other mines, apart for two posts from Greenland Ruby (LNS). Nunavik Nickel (Canadian Royalties) posted regular company press releases on its website in March. A few information was found for Kiruna and Malmberget on LKAB’s website.

Conclusion: One mine, One Strategy

To conclude, comparison between mining sites strategies is not an easy task, especially with limited public communications. The information was identify in widely various sources, complicating further the analysis. Only one company (Canadian Royalties) communicated publicly on a regular basis regarding the measures implemented during the first wave – but the very same company did not communicate about its first two covid-19 cases. 

Apart for Nunavik Nickel and Malmberget mines, no cases or suspicions of covid-19 were detected during covid-19 first wave – or, if any, they were not publicly communicated by the other mines. In addition, for one of these two mines (i.e. Nunavik Nickel), the information was made public by the regional health agency and not by the company. This illustrates further the lack of transparency, or at the very least, the limited publicly available communication for most of the mine sites.

All of the mine sites but Kiruna were impacted by covid-19 first wave, through lock down or shut down for various periods of time. If it had not been for the earthquake, the Kiruna’s mine would not have suffer from any shut down or slowing down in 2020, proving how strategic is the mining sector and LKAB for Sweden.

Last but not least, this paper reflects the limits of a comparative exercise in the mining sector. Apart for few similarities, each mine had its own strategy crisis, depending on its location and its employees’ situation.

Acknowledgments

This contribution was supported by the Observatoire de la Politique et de la Sécurité de l’Arctique (OPSA, University of Ottawa) and by the Ministère des Relations internationales et de la Francophonie du Québec.

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[1]On March 24th, 2020, Nunavik’s authorities decided to ban non-essential flights; on April 3rd, the Nunavik Regional Emergency Preparedness Advisory Committee lockdown the entire region, cancelling every flights from and to Nunavik, and every flights between communities.

[2]A map of active mining sites is available on this webpage : Gouvernement du Québec (2015).

[3]Incorporated in 2011, Canadian Royalties Inc. is a subsidiary of Jien Canada Mining Ltd, itself a subsidiary of Jien International Investment Ltd, incorporated in 2008 and headquartered in Ottawa. The group holding is Jilin Horoc Nonferrous Metal Group Company Ltd. incorporated in 1960 and located in Panshi. See companies profiles on Bloomberg. Example with Jien Canada Mining Ltd.: <https://www.bloomberg.com/research/stocks/private/snapshot.asp?privcapId=65072735>.

[4]Facebook post, dated July 11th 2020: “It’s World Population Day! Fun Fact! Despite being the biggest island on earth, and nearly 5 times bigger than France, Greenland has a population of only 56 000 people, 35 of which work at the Greenland Ruby mine site in Aappaluttoq!” (Greenland Ruby, 2020a).

[5] This includes mines and processing plants in Kiruna, Svappavaara and Malmberget, as well as rail freight services and the ports in Narvik and Luleå.

[6] For an example in Nunavut, see Harvey (2020).

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