Mines keep close watch as Eskom output is squeezed

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Dineo Faku

MINING companies are monitoring the performance of Eskom as power supply is at risk, partly as a result of unrest in the coal sector, during which police fired rubber bullets at striking workers at Shanduka Coal’s Graspan colliery in Mpumalanga on Tuesday.

The strike at Graspan follows disruptions at Exxaro Resources’ coal operations, which started on March 5, raising concerns about coal supply to Eskom power stations.

Production at the Graspan colliery has ground to a halt. But work at Shanduka Coal’s other operations continued as normal, the company said.

Shanduka Coal’s chief operating officer Zirk van der Bank said as of Wedbesday supplies to Eskom had not been affected but management is monitoring the situation.

Fears about the possibility of blackouts, similar to those in 2008, are increasing, and delays in the commissioning of the new Medupi power station have added to the concern.

Anglo American said it was monitoring aspects of Eskom’s performance and was aware of its limitations.

Pranill Ramchander, the Anglo American spokesman, said this week: “Anglo American is supporting Eskom by shedding load as and when required as mutually agreed.

“Anglo American’s respective business units each have their own contingency plans in place.”

BHP Billiton, the largest diversified mining company, said it was working closely with Eskom “which allows us to best accommodate the shedding”.

“We also have other technical plans in place to minimise the interruptions,” said BHP Billiton spokeswoman Lulu Letlape.

In January 2008, to helpstabilise power supply in South Africa, BHP Billiton mothballed two potlines at its Bayside aluminium smelter.

“These potlines remain mothballed. We are not receiving any compensation from Eskom,” she said.

In January 2008 the national power supplier introduced “load shedding”, or planned rolling blackouts on a rotating schedule, when short supply threatened the national grid.

On Monday, Eskom said its reserve margin had fallen to just over 1 percent. It indicated that “should there be any other power station breaks, there will be blackouts”.

The wildcat strike at Exxaro Resources has affected the Arnot, Matla, Leeuwpan, Grootegeluk and Inyanda collieries and its reductants operations. Exxaro might dismiss the 3 200 striking coal workers if they refused to return to work by next week, the company said on Wednesday.

“At this stage the company is weighing its options but engagement continues with the National Union of Mineworkers [NUM] to try to get people back to work and to find a solution,” it said in response to questions. “One of the options would be to dismiss striking employees who fail to return to work in the week of March 25.”

Lucas Mohlala, the national deputy chairman of NUM, said yesterday that the union’s leadership had met Exxaro management, with the aim of getting workers to return to work as soon as possible.

“There are still issues that we need to iron out but we are trying to get workers back to work as soon as possible.”

He declined to share the outcome of the meeting before addressing workers.

Police had fired rubber bullets at striking workers at Shanduka Coal’s Graspan colliery after the demonstrators tried to charge their lines with earth-moving equipment, police and the company said on Wednesday.

Seven workers were admitted to hospital and nine were arrested after the incident on Tuesday evening.

Operations at Graspan remained suspended on Wednesday following the wildcat protest by about 250 employees.

– With additional reporting by Nompumelelo Magwaza and Reuter

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