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Agnico Eagle Mines CEO Sean Boyd in the gold mining companies' Toronto head office on Dec. 19, 2019.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

Sean Boyd, the chief executive officer of Agnico Eagle Mines Ltd. , is calling for far more factory-based testing for COVID-19, a strategy he says has kept both cases and employee deaths from the virus at bay for the big Canadian miner since the start of the pandemic.

More than a year ago, the Toronto-based gold miner started screening employees of its Nunavut gold mines for COVID-19 using its own testing equipment. Workers who fly in from Quebec aren’t allowed to board planes until their results, which typically take about three hours to come back, test negative. Agnico has similar protocols in place at its operations in Mexico and Finland. Agnico, which employs 12,000 people, currently has only 22 active cases of the virus. Since the start of the pandemic, two of its workers, both in Mexico, have died of the disease.

“I look at some of these big employers in Canada that have these big factories, or big buildings where there’s hundreds of people working in there, and for the life of me I don’t understand why there wasn’t a requirement that they’re testing these employees as they go in there,” Mr. Boyd said in an interview. “If you really want to make it work, you can make it work. There’s a cost. We’re paying for it, and we’re happy to pay for it.”

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Early in the pandemic, government-mandated shutdowns forced the closing of seven of eight of Agnico’s mines. Thirteen months on, the picture is considerably brighter with its operations near full steam, and the company even considering bringing its Inuit work force in Nunavut back to work. In March of last year, Agnico sent its Inuit employees home with 75-per-cent pay to reduce the chance of the virus spreading to the Indigenous community. The risk was deemed particularly acute because of the lack of access to large hospitals in the territory, and because many Inuit live in close quarters.

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Agnico on Thursday reported a net profit of US$136-million in the quarter, compared with a US$21.5-million loss in the same quarter last year. On an adjusted basis, the company reported a profit of 67 US cents a share, eight cents a share better than analysts surveyed by Refinitiv were expecting.

Dominique Girard, senior vice-president of operations, Canada and Europe, said in an earnings conference call with analysts on Friday that public hearings in Nunavut over the company’s application to build a new water discharge pipeline have been delayed because of elevated COVID cases in the territory. Agnico currently trucks salt water it encounters underground at the Meliadine mine to Melvin Bay, near Rankin Inlet. Agnico believes an underground pipeline, which would cost the company about $35-million to build, is a more efficient method of transporting the water, and would eliminate the dust whipped up by the trucks.

Separately, Agnico said in its earning release that it expects in June to be given the go-ahead from the Nunavut water board to increase the amount of mineral-heavy water from rain and snow accumulation it discharges from Meliadine into a nearby lake. Agnico had originally wanted to increase the maximum mineral concentration limits in the water by about 3½ times higher that it was previously allowed. At the request of Environment and Climate Change Canada, the company agreed to reduce the magnitude of its proposed increase.

Even as the COVID cloud begins to clear, Agnico faces fresh challenges, not least of all a falling commodity price. Since hitting an all-time high in August of last year of US$2,050 an ounce, the price of gold has fallen by 14 per cent. Agnico, like many other large miners, has seen its share price correct as well in the interim.

“There’s not much we can do about it,” Mr. Boyd said about the price of bullion, “other than just focus on the underlying quality of the business and keep the risk level low.”

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