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Smelter closure will leave hundreds jobless

Calls for the closure of the Tsumeb smelter are unreasonable as such a move will put more than 800 people out of work.
“Government is already sitting with a headache which is a 51.2% unemployment rate. To close down a mine which employs 840 people is not right. We cannot allow that. Those who want to close the smelter, will continue to have jobs and have a salary, while the workers will be left on the street and will be forced to beg,” charged Emmanuel Hangulah, the Mine Workers Union (MUN)’s national education, research, occupational health and safety coordinator.
Hangulah says the union is not looking at sending people home, but is instead looking at policies and agreements which could benefit its members.
“The MUN is not looking at sending people home. We do not sleep well when companies are closing down. We are instead, looking at a number of policies and capacity agreements that could benefit the Namibia Custom Smelters’ employees,” he tells the Economist.
The MUN and Namibia Custom Smelters are engaged in talks regarding compensation for workers in the event that the smelter does close or if it is found that workers were exposed to high arsenic levels resulting in illness. The negotiations also involve trying to find ways in which to reduce arsenic levels, Hangulah adds.
Hangulah dismissed allegations that the union is compromising the health of workers stating that such claims are untrue.
“We are a committed union, we want to ensure a healthy state, a healthy economy and a healthy workforce. We are not compromising the health of our members. There are modalities in place to ensure their health,” he emphasised.
Hangulah said this amidst calls for the closure of the smelter as some workers complained about suffering from various skin diseases as a result of being exposed to ‘high arsenic levels’.
Namibia Custom Smelters however, maintains that illnesses experienced by workers are not due to exposure. The company says when concerns about illness were first raised, it immediately provided medical assistance for its employees. The findings, which were dismissed by those affected, showed no link between the illnesses and the smelter.
The illnesses were the result of underlying medical conditions, James Kastelic, superintendent: public relations at Namibia Customs Smelters says. Government just completed a second medical review regarding the allegations, but the results are yet to be released.
According to Kastelic, the smelter cannot be run successfully with arsenic-free concentrates.
“…it is important to note that the Tsumeb Smelter is designed to treat complex concentrates that contain certain impurities. Without a steady and reliable supply of such material to keep our furnaces going, the smelter would have to close and close to 840 jobs would be lost,” he told the Economist.
He further says the smelter was built to process complex concentrates in the 1960s from the former Tsumeb and Khusib Springs mines. These concentrates contained far higher levels of arsenic than the concentrates coming into the smelter now, Kastelic emphasised.
“Occasionally there are unpleasant releases of sulfur dioxide into the air that can be noticed in the Tsumeb community, but these conditions are not health threatening. Nonetheless, we understand that residents get irritated when sulfur dioxide escapes from our operations into the air. The current uproar is unprecedented, but it might be that our insistence on transparency, together with our meetings with the community to discuss environmental issues, have actually raised public interest about arsenic and sulfur dioxide.
“This may have caused them to become more vocal about our operations. What we have done in response and will continue to do is engage the public in a positive way to create a better understanding of the challenges we face to produce copper safely and economically. We will also continue our efforts to build greater awareness about the many projects we have launched to upgrade the smelter complex in order to fix the problems inherited from many years of neglect,” says Kastelic.
He continued to say that there is a bright future for the Tsumeb Smelter and that its parent company, Dundee Precious Metals, has invested more than N$160 million into upgrading the production plants and improving environmental systems.
“What’s more, another N$600 million will be spent over the next 18 months to continue this work, which aims at significantly reducing the presence of arsenic dust in the workplace and the levels of sulfur dioxide in the air. A further N$900 million has been allocated for the construction of a high-return acid plant. This kind of expenditure means that Dundee has long-term plans for Namibia Custom Smelters,”  Kastelic says.
The first results of an ongoing environmental impact assessment of the smelter recently showed that sulfur dioxide emissions exceed international guidelines in some areas, while concentrations of lead and cadmium released into the atmosphere fall below international exposure guidelines. Tsumeb residents recently held a peaceful demonstration, demanding for the immediate ban of copper concentrate imports from Bulgaria. They alleged that there they are being exposed to dangerous pollutants which damage people’s health. The residents also called for the compensation of workers that have been exposed to arsenic and other similar toxin agents.

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