On April 16, 2022, Vancouver-based Trevali Mining Corp released a statement confirming that heavy rainfall caused flash floods at its Perkoa Mine in Burkina Faso. Although most workers were able to evacuate the zinc mine, eight workers – six from Burkina Faso and one each from Zambia and Tanzania – were trapped underground. As of today, the eight workers have been stuck in the flooded mine for over a month, and the search to rescue them is still ongoing.
What Happened and Where are the Missing Workers Now?
With 125 millimeters of rainfall in less than an hour, the water entered the underground mine rapidly on April 16, cutting off electricity and communications and making it difficult to locate the trapped workers. Trevali was able to confirm that, at the time of the flooding, the eight workers were at least 520 meters below the surface. The good news is that the mine has two chambers in which workers are able to seek refuge in the case of emergencies. The chambers are located hundreds of meters below the surface and contain food and water.
On May 17, rescue workers reached the first chamber but found it empty. The search party is currently headed for the second chamber, with the hope that the eight workers were able to reach it when the flood happened.
The search for workers has become an international effort, and rescue teams have been working against the clock to save the workers’ lives. Special equipment, including high-capacity pumps, were brought in from Ghana and South Africa to hasten the efforts to rescuing the workers. So far, more than 38 million liters (10 million gallons) of water have been pumped out of the mine, according to Lionel Bilgo, a spokesperson from Burkina Faso’s government. This allowed rescue teams to reach 550 meters below the surface and get closer to the missing workers.
In light of these efforts, there is still hope to rescue the workers, but “the more the number of days increases the more anguish there is,” expressed the brother of one of the trapped workers.
Dissatisfaction with the Company’s Delayed Response
The situation at the Perkoa Mine has sparked public outrage in Burkina Faso since rescue operations were launched only after protests and a sit-in a nearby town took place five days after the floods happened.
Moreover, families of the missing workers are disappointed with the company’s handling of the emergency. Brenda Mwamba, the wife of the Zambian miner, complained that it took the company five days after the initial floods to only inform her about her husband’s situation. “We asked them about the mine’s dimension and layout, [but] they could not give us the information,” Mwamba said. The families of other trapped workers have filed cases against persons unknown for attempted manslaughter, jeopardizing life, and failing to help a person in danger.
Trevali’s Attempts at Damage Control
Trevali, a global zinc producer that operates in Canada, Burkina Faso, and Namibia, said that it was caught off guard by the heavy rainfall. “Given the dry season obviously we do not expect rain and we had an absolute torrential downpour,” stated Hein Frey, Trevali’s Vice President of Operations.
However, such a statement raises concerns about the company’s management strategies in emergency cases and understanding of Burkina Faso’s climate. According to climatology experts, rainfall is “unpredictable and variable” in Burkina Faso, meaning that even in the dry season, there is a chance of precipitation. Moreover, “from an engineering standpoint, if you are a mining company, you have a pretty good idea of what the potential worst-case scenarios are,” said Jamie Kneen, a spokesperson for MiningWatch Canada.
Mines are known to be susceptible to flooding, Kneen added, so the risk of flooding needs to be always calculated, and pumps have to be available at any time to remove water from the mine. Thus, the fact that the company had to bring in pumps from other countries after the flooding happened proves that it was not ready to handle the accident. As Kneen put it, “they are bringing in extra pumps, which means they did not have them on hand.” Ultimately, the lack of emergency response infrastructure in the Perkoa Mine, while perhaps not a reflection of Trevali’s policies overall, certainly shows a degree of negligence on the company’s part.
A Judicial Probe: Effective or Trivial?
Burkina Faso’s government has launched a judicial investigation to find out the cause of the accident and prohibited the mine’s managers from leaving the country while investigations are still underway. Prime Minister Albert Ouedraogo blamed “irresponsibility” by the mine’s managers. Ouedraogo also claimed that several days before the downpour, “dynamite was used on the open-air [part of the] mine, which weakened the [underground] gallery and enabled the flooding”.
Nevertheless, Catherine Coumans, a research coordinator at MiningWatch Canada, argues that these investigations are unlikely to have any consequences on the company and its managers. This is because the progress made to hold Canadian corporations operating overseas accountable has been marginal for many years. “It is no different now than it was in 1999 when [MiningWatch Canada] started [operating],” said Coumans.
Coumans also notes that environmental and human rights violations committed by Canadian mining companies abroad are “more common than most Canadians realize.” MiningWatch is continuously being made aware of accidents where workers’ lives at these companies are at risk and their safety is not taken into consideration. Yet these companies still enjoy impunity.
With the flooding event at the Perkoa Mine, however, it is time for the Canadian government to devote more efforts to holding mining companies accountable for their actions. Even if their actions do not harm Canadian citizens, they are hurting citizens of other nations who similarly have a right to be adequately protected while on the job. Effective measures also have to be taken to ensure that these companies are aware of and liable for the risks associated with their activities and have management strategies to deal with emergencies. This should be the first step towards protecting workers at these companies and ensuring that they do not face what the eight trapped workers at the Perkoa Mine are enduring.