KONKOLA Copper Mines has started importing copper concentrate from Chile which contains arsenic, a toxic chemical element that causes cancer if exposed to humans in uncontrolled quantities.
But the mining company says it has taken the necessary precautions to ensure that “this and all impurities are captured and safely stored so that there is no adverse impact on the environment or human health.”
According to studies, concentrated arsenic content can contaminate groundwater, leading to widespread epidemics and if exposed in larger quantities to humans, the brittle steel-grey semi-metal can cause arsenic cancer.
Technical sources at KCM also feared that the copper concentrate the company was importing from South America could be harmful to humans and the environment.
The sources said the workers who are handling the copper concentrate feared for their health as the consignment from Chile had levels of arsenic as high as four per cent.
“If you recall from your chemistry, arsenic is not like any other ordinary chemical friendly to the environment and human beings. Arsine gas is highly toxic. The toxicity is due to arsenic’s effect on many cell enzymes, which affect metabolism and DNA repair. Medical experts will tell you that long-term exposure to arsenic, either in drinking water or any other source, can cause cancer in the skin, lungs, bladder and kidney. It can also cause other skin changes such as thickening and pigmentation, “ sources said.
“We are not saying KCM has not done anything about this. They have put up strict safety and protection measures and that’s why it is important that the mining firm tells the nation how it is handling this highly contaminated concentrate to allay fears because the four per cent of arsenic gas is too much for any mine in the world for smelting. Other means maybe must be explored.”
The sources said it was believed that the first consignment had a total quantity of 3,000 tonnes of copper concentrate and about 900 tonnes had so far been received.
And responding to a press query, KCM public relations manager Shapi Shachinda stated that arsenic content was common in copper concentrates.
“The concentrates contain some amounts of arsenic, which is a common component of copper concentrates, depending on their source. KCM has taken the necessary precautions to ensure that this and all impurities are captured and safely stored so that there is no adverse impact on the environment or human health,” Shachinda stated.
“The Zambia Environmental Management Authority (ZEMA) has been informed accordingly about the imports of the Chilean concentrates”
He said the concentrate is blended with KCM’s own concentrates and other third party concentrates.
“The company will smelt these concentrates in its Nchanga smelter. The source of the concentrates is the Chilean state-run Codelco, which is the world’s largest copper producer and was once the technology partner of the ZCCM,” Shachinda stated.
“The purchases are part of a programme that KCM is undertaking to ensure that it operates the Nchanga smelter at full capacity. With changes in regulations around VAT refund, it has once more become viable for KCM to purchase concentrates from other local and foreign mining companies and smelt them at its own facilities. Currently, KCM is blending its concentrates with those from mines in the northwestern province and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is a common practice globally for smelters to buy concentrates where they have excess smelting capacity.