Johannesburg, South Africa — MININGREVIEW.COM — 03 June 2009 – Harmony Gold Mining Company – Africa’s third-biggest producer of the metal – has revealed that the death toll rose to least 61 yesterday in the wake of an underground fire that killed illegal miners at a disused gold mine in the Free State.
“Today we found 25 more bodies," said Tom Smith, head of Harmony’s operations in the part of the country where the abandoned shaft is located. “The bodies are not burnt,” he added, “it seems more of a case of gas or smoke inhalation.
Reuters reports that illegal mining in South Africa’s abandoned gold mines often goes unnoticed because miners can sneak past security at one mine and exit from one owned by a different company kilometres away. The illegal miners can stay underground for months unseen.
The news agency adds that gold prices near record highs have made the risks taken by well-organised illegal mining syndicates even more worthwhile.
Harmony – the world’s No. 5 gold producer – is particularly exposed to plundering by illegal miners, because it was built on a strategy of buying old, unwanted gold shafts and mines.
Smith said the bodies had been retrieved by fellow illegal miners from depths of up to 1.4 km.
He added that he did not know how the fire had started, and reiterated that it was too dangerous for Harmony to send its staff to search for bodies.
“I don’t know if there are any more bodies down there,” explained, “we just have to wait.”
The illegal miners were killed in a fire over the weekend at Harmony’s Eland shaft, located in the central Free State. A similar fire at its marginal St. Helena mine in the same province killed 23 illegal miners in 2007.
The Department of Mining, which is grappling with an escalating safety crisis in South Africa’s mining sector, has said that dealing with illegal miners was difficult because it lacked enough staff to inspect producing mines, let alone disused ones. Illegal miners were also usually armed.
In the past two weeks, 294 criminal miners have been brought to surface at the company’s Eland shaft in the Free State. They were charged and will be criminally prosecuted.
Harmony CEO Graham Briggs said: “We continue to address the issue of criminal mining on a daily basis, together with the South African Police Services, the Department of Justice, the National Prosecuting Authority and other affected mining companies.”