FMI Mining Operations Plagued by Accidents and Safety Violations

Freeport-McMoRan Mining Operations Plagued by Recent Accidents and Safety Violations

By Richard Mahler, GetAGRIP Newsletter Editor

Two October accidents at the Chino Mine’s primary leach stockpile—the Lampbright, near Bayard—sent six workers to the hospital and prompted an investigation by New Mexico’s State Mine Inspector and federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). The incidents were the latest in a recent series of troublesome safety-related events involving mine owner Freeport-McMoRan (FMI).

On the morning of Oct. 3, according to an internal report, one FMI employee and three Hamilton Construction contract workers were treated at Silver City’s Gila Regional Medical Center and later released after some of them felt ill (headache, nausea, vomiting) after inhaling toxic gas fumes associated with a pipeline carrying sulfuric acid. All other workers on the stockpile were evacuated later that morning as an FMI investigation began. (Hamilton has standing contracts at the Chino and Tyrone mines for various earthworks and reclamation projects.)

Four days later, two Hamilton employees working on the same stockpile complained of feeling ill and were taken to GRMC for observation and subsequently released. The leach pile was again shut down.

The stockpile has been closed since the second incident and the company is under an MSHA “K Order,” established by the agency to “protect the safety of any person in the mine when a mine condition exists as a result of an accident that treatens the safety of miners.” According to a senior FMI manager, employees have accessed the site “a few times under supplied air with MSHA personnel.”

The incidents remain under investigation by the MSHA and State Mine Inspector, with a potential violation and fine looming. A report in the Silver City Sun-News quoted an FMI spokesman as labeling the Oct. 7 accident “an isolated event.” In a Dec. 1 memo to the MSHA, FMI attributed the Lampbright exposures to “a number of factors” and outlined actions undertaken by the company—including pipeline and valve changes as well as air monitoring improvements—that “would eliminate recurrence” when implemented” and “will result in redundant protection” for workers in areas where toxic gases may be a health and safety hazard.

Earlier this fall, a Sept. 23 inspection by the MSHA resulted in 38 citations for “hazardous conditions” at the Chino mine, owned and operated by FMI since 2007. According to an MSHA news release, inspectors from the U.S. Department of Labor reported “unguarded belt conveyors that exposed miners to potential injury from entanglement; failure to provide handrails down a flight of steps; exposing miners to slip, trip and fall hazards; and failure to barricade a tunnel to prevent injury from ground failure while miners were working and cutting in the area directly above the tunnel.” Potential shock, explosion, and fire hazards were also noted.

In a Grant County Beat report, FMI spokesman Eric Kinneberg was quoted as saying all issues identified by the MSHA inspection team “have been addressed,” adding that “safety is integral to all of Freeport-McMoRan’s operations.” During the first 10 months of this year, however, the MSHA issued 125 citations to FMI involving Chino, levying more than $62,000 in fines. In 2013, the mine was cited 137 times by the agency and fined nearly $33,000.

Last summer, three spills totaling 280,000 gallons of copper concentrate solutions occurred at Chino’s Ivanhoe Concentrator due to spill management problems, equipment failure, operator error, and breached berms. Maintenance and repair issues were identified by the New Mexico Environment Department that may impact groundwater quality. Chino is implementing corrective action to fix these issues in order to prevent future spills, and must report back to the NMED by Dec. 19.

In Miami, AZ, on Nov. 12, FMI shut down its sole U.S. copper smelter for nearly a month after a fire broke out when molten copper breached a processing vessel in the facility and flowed onto the ground. No injuries occurred and the material was contained, according to a Reuters news report. FMI is investigating the cause of the accident, which caused explosions heard throughout the area. Concentrate processed at Miami is almost exclusively sourced from FMI’s mines in Arizona and New Mexico.

Across the Pacific, unionized workers at FMI’s huge Indonesian copper mine held a one-month strike that ended Dec. 6 in protest of adverse working conditions, local management, and low wages at the Grasberg complex in Papua, which employs about 24,000 workers and provides one-fifth of the firm’s global revenue. According to Reuters, hundreds of angry protestors blocked access to the pit for two days in October following the death of four workers in a Sept. 27 mine accident.

Across the Pacific, unionized workers at FMI’s huge Indonesian copper mine held a one-month strike that ended Dec. 6 in protest of adverse working conditions, local management, and low wages at the Grasberg complex in Papua, which employs about 24,000 workers and provides one-fifth of the firm’s global revenue. According to Reuters, hundreds of protestors blocked access to the pit for two days in October after the deaths of four workers in a Sept. 27 mine accident.

For a company that prioritizes safety, some wonder why FMI is experiencing so many accidents and worker-related safety violations here and elsewhere. Is this a company-wide problem? Do FMI’s procedures need updating? Is there lax enforcement of its safety program? What’s going on? So far, little information has been publicly released by the international mining enterprise.

Meanwhile, in an historic mid-September election, members of United Steelworkers Union Local 9424-3 in Bayard voted 236 to 83 in favor of decertifying that union for representation of Chino mineworkers employed by Freeport-McMoRan. The decertification vote was scheduled after more than 30 percent of members of the bargaining unit asked through a petition for an election presenting the option to decertify, in accordance with National Labor Relations Board guidelines. The union had represented 360 Chino Mine employees, including all production and maintenance workers. As a result Grant County, home of 1950s union-busting activities dramatized in the 1954 movie, Salt of the Earth, now has no union representation at any of its mines. The film, made locally and quickly blacklisted, was based on Mine-Mill Local 890’s Empire Zinc mine strike of 1951. Unions since that time have helped workers advocate for and enforce safety measures at local mines, among other benefits. Mine-Mill merged with the United Steelworkers in 1967, the same year the union local staged a six-month strike at Chino, then owned by Kennecott.

Sharp declines in the price of copper (to below $3 a pound) and oil (to less than $62 per barrel) helped push FMI stock price down by over 20 percent since early 2014. Yet President and CEO Richard Adkerson told the Toronto-based Northern Miner that FMI remains optimistic “about the long-term future of copper prices….People have to move underground in Chile and we have to move underground in Indonesia.” On Dec. 3, FMI announced a review of its capital expenditures and other costs in the wake of low commodity prices.

 

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