Glencore. Picture: REUTERS
Glencore. Picture: REUTERS

Kinshasa/Dakar — The number of artisanal miners killed by a landslide at a copper and cobalt mine run by Glencore in southeast Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) rose to 43 on Friday and could climb further as the search for missing workers continues, local officials said.

Thursday’s accident occurred in the KOV open-pit mine at the Kamoto Copper Company (KCC) concession near DRC's southern border with Zambia, in which Glencore subsidiary Katanga Mining has a 75% stake.

The original death toll was estimated at 36 but rose throughout Thursday evening and into Friday as more bodies were uncovered, the officials said.

"We think that other bodies are still under the rubble," said Joseph Yav Katshung, the director of cabinet for the governor of the Lualaba province where the incident occurred.

Officials said the miners were working on the site illegally and had no approval or permits, a common occurrence in south DRC and Africa generally. Old-fashioned and unregulated methods, which can compromise safety, cost dozens of lives a year in DRC alone.

A union official representing KCC employees said a crack in part of the pit had been noticed on Wednesday. He said KCC had put up red warning signs, but the diggers had ignored them.

In a statement on Thursday, Glencore confirmed 19 fatalities and said it was assisting search and rescue operations by local authorities.

“It was caused by the clandestine artisanal diggers who have infiltrated [the mine],” he said. “The old terraces gave way, causing significant amounts of material to fall.”

“KOV is a delicate site and presents many risks,” he added.

Artisanal mining on the edge of commercial mine sites is a big problem across Africa. The rudimentary, outdated and unregulated practices miners employ can often compromise safety. 

Thousands of illegal miners operate in southern Congo, which produces more than half of the world’s cobalt, a key component in electric car batteries.

Glencore says an average of 2,000 illegal miners sneak daily onto the KCC concession, which spans a vast flat expanse on the outskirts of the city of Kolwezi near the Zambian border, and is one of the country’s largest copper deposits.

This is not the first accident at the mine. In 2016, a 250m wall inside the KOV pit collapsed, killing seven mine employees.

Muyej said that the authorities were meeting to decide on new measures to secure large mines.

At least nine illegal gold miners died in Zimbabwe when they were trapped in a mine in May. Twenty-two died in a previous Zimbabwean gold-mine flood in February, and 14 tin miners were buried alive in Rwanda after heavy rains in January.

In February, about 20 people died when a truck carrying acid to Glencore’s Mutanda Mine in the DRC collided with two other vehicles.

DRC’s military deployed hundreds of soldiers last week to protect a copper and cobalt mine owned by China Molybdenum from illegal miners.

Shares in Glencore closed down 4.9%, their worst day of trading since December. The company said the incident has not affected output.

BMO Capital Markets analyst Edward Sterck says if the incident is related to illegal mining, any effects may be relatively short-term beyond an investigative period.

“However, preventative action will likely be needed and it could impact Glencore’s social licence to operate,” he said.

KCC produced a total of 152,400 tonnes of copper and 11,100 tonnes of cobalt in 2018. Glencore’s nearby Mutanda project produced 199,000 tonnes of copper and 27,300 tonnes of cobalt.