Rio Tinto has halted all mining and smelting operations and declared force majeure on customer contracts at Richards Bay Minerals (RBM) in South Africa, due to an escalation in the security situation at the operations.
Rio Tinto states the cease of operations will be in place until the safety and security position improves.
The decision comes after Richards Bay Minerals’ general manager Nico Swart was shot and killed in May, becoming the third employee of the operations to be killed since 2015. In recent weeks, members of the public have been setting fire to bulldozers and other heavy machinery on the site.
Rio Tinto chief executive Minerals, Sinead Kaufman, said: “The safety of our people is our top priority. We continue to offer our full support to the investigating authorities and I would like to acknowledge the ongoing support of the regional and national governments and South African Police Service as we work together to ensure that we can safely resume operations.”
RBM is South Africa’s largest mineral sands producer. RBM mines the vast mineral rich sands of the northern KwaZulu-Natal province and produces predominantly ilmenite, rutile and zircon – materials used in everything from paint to smart phones to sunscreen.
RBM is a joint venture between Rio Tinto (74%) and Blue Horizon – a consortium of investors and Host Communities Mbonambi, Sokhulu, Mkhwanazi and Dube – which owns 24%. The remaining shares are held in an employee trust.
In April 2019, Rio Tinto approved the next stage in the development of RBM through the construction of the Zulti South project.
The $463 million project will sustain RBM’s current capacity and extend the life of the mine. RBM currently operates four mines in the Zulti North lease area, a mineral separation plant and smelting facility. The Zulti South mine will underpin RBM’s supply of zircon and ilmenite over the life of mine.
The Zulti South project has remained on full suspension since security and community issues started at the site in 2019. Rio Tinto will reassess a restart following normalisation of operations at RBM.