A desperate search for eight miners who are trapped by flood waters more than half a kilometre underground at a Canadian-owned zinc mine in West Africa is turning into an international effort, as new equipment arrives at the site.
The workers have been trapped for more than three weeks at the Perkoa mine in Burkina Faso, after heavy thunderstorms triggered flash flooding on April 16. They are believed to be about 550 metres below the surface, with possible access to an emergency chamber at a depth of 580 metres.
High-capacity pumping equipment from Ghana was trucked to the mine late last week, and more pumps are scheduled to arrive by plane from South Africa this week. Burkina Faso’s government said it has also received offers of technical help from Morocco and the European Union.
“No effort is too great,” Burkina Faso’s Mining Minister, Jean Alphonse Somé, said during a visit to the mine site on the weekend.
The saga has gripped the country, as government officials provide frequent updates on the rescue effort. Government spokesperson Lionel Bilgo described the work as “a race against time.”
The mine is 90-per-cent owned by Vancouver-based Trevali Mining Corp. TV-T, which acquired it and a mine in Namibia in a US$400-million deal with Glencore in 2017.
The company said it had removed about 30 million litres of water from the mine by Saturday. It has installed 5,000 metres of pipes and more than two dozen electric and diesel pumps, while using 25,000 tonnes of waste rock to rehabilitate a mine access ramp.
Government videos from the mine site show the pumping operations, with water pouring from pipes into a pond on the surface.
Six of the trapped workers are from Burkina Faso, while the others are from Tanzania and Zambia.
The mine was flooded after about 125 millimetres of rain fell in less than an hour. The water breached the open pit, entered the underground mine and cut off electricity and communications. The mine’s operations have been suspended since then.
“We are steadfast in our goal to find our missing colleagues,” said Jason Mercier, director of investor relations at Trevali.
“Search crews will continue to work at maximum capacity, 24 hours per day, until the missing individuals are located.”
In order to install and operate the pumps and pipes required for the search effort, workers had to remove rocks and debris from more than 5,000 metres of the underground access ramp, Mr. Mercier said.
The mine is in daily contact with the families of the trapped miners, he added.
Government officials said there had been breakdowns in some of the pumps during the rescue effort. The mine has experienced “sporadic and expected interruptions in pumping,” mainly because the connected series of pumps must be halted when one of them needs to be refuelled, Mr. Mercier said.
“Sourcing and transporting some of the equipment to a remote mine site has its challenges, and most of the emergency pumps were supplied though neighbouring mines,” he noted.
The Burkina Faso government has said the mine’s managers will not be permitted to leave the country while a legal investigation into the flooding is under way.
“We fully support an open and independent investigation and will provide any assistance that may be required,” Mr. Mercier said. “We understand that the government’s concerns are to ensure that relevant personnel be present and available.”
He added that the company has also launched its own investigation.
Burkina Faso Prime Minister Albert Ouedraogo, in a visit to the mine site earlier this month, reportedly alleged that there was “irresponsibility” among the mine managers. Media reports quoted him as saying the flooding was caused by a weakening of the underground gallery as a result of the use of open-air dynamite.
Mr. Mercier said he cannot speculate on the outcome of the investigations. “But what we can say is that explosives are used at the Perkoa Mine almost daily as part of normal mining operations.”
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