Yesterday, a fire engulfed a section of the Konkola Copper Mines (KCM) smelter leaving components of the Cobalt Recovery Furnace damaged. Although the fire was visible to the mining community that lives within the vicinity, the government appointed Provisional Liquidator Mr Milingo Lungu downplayed the incident, saying it was nothing sinister.

“It was just a fault, we were supposed to have gone on annual shutdown on Friday so there was a fault in the furnace, today (Wednesday), so we decided to go on shutdown two days earlier, but usually that steam, the molten copper mixing with water, the steam comes out so it’s not a fire, it’s expected when they are shutting down. There is nothing like injuries or casualties, we will be circulating pictures just now of how it looks like,” said Milingo.

This is not the only incident; since government took over Konkola Copper Mines from parent owners Vedanta Resources in May this year, we have heard reports of looting, vandalism to property and fire destroying equipment. There is no doubt that negligence has taken centre stage in the management of this asset and we must be very assured that once the arbitration case is disposed off, the next dispute will be over the damage done to the business.

In saying this, we are not suggesting that under Vedanta there were no incidences at this mining facility. What we are saying is that we have serious concerns with the manner in which the country’s largest mining asset is being run under this provisional liquidation because the ongoing damage will cost Zambia so many millions of dollars if the on-going arbitration case goes against the State – which as things stand is highly likely.

We have no qualms with Mr Milingo Lungu as an individual. The Provisional liquidator is a good man, humble and approachable for anyone who wishes to engage him and ask questions about the state of affairs around the asset. Our problem is not with Mr Milingo Lungu, but the other Lungu who made a very uneducated decision to create a problem that he had no capacity solve.

This Lungu who lives in State House lied to Zambians that by end of July, a new investor to takeover the operation at KCM would be found and mining activities would resume in full gear to pump out the much needed tax revenue for the country. We asked him how this was going to be possible since the matter had been referred to arbitration in South Africa, we were told that Zambia is a sovereign State and no foreign court ruling would stop the government from selling the mine. It is October today and there is no buyer interested in KCM due to the protracted dispute. The State House-based Lungu doesn’t even know what to do or say. He is stuck, meanwhile the destruction of the mining asset is only getting worse.

Serious questions must be asked and answers must be provided on why government has allowed the mine to be run down when the citizens who ultimately own the business were promised that the asset would be revamped.

In this latest incident, it would appear that the Provisional Liquidator and his team should have made provisions and plans to shut down the smelter some time back, because it had been operating beyond safe parameters, but they ignored this safety measure.

Experts at KCM tell us that based on the schedule which the Smelter had been following, the last annual shut down was in October 2016 and the next one was planned in 2018. We are told that the Vedanta controlled management decided that the smelter could run for another year until May 2019. Although some furnace problems started showing warning signs, the shut down which was scheduled for May this year was ignored, thereby subjecting the Cobalt Recovery Furnace to danger of rupturing.

“The problem is that the shut down was delayed. It’s like there was no money to buy some spares. The Vedanta people did not shut as scheduled in 2018 and now the May 2019 shut down was also not done. This pushed the machinery too far. So by the time money was found to buy the key spare parts and the October shut down was scheduled, it was too late. That’s why there was a rapture,” a KCM expert told us.

We must thank God that no fatalities were recorded from the fire that engulfed the KCM business unit at Nchanga. But there are serious lessons to be learnt here. From the above information, anyone can tell that the so-called Cobalt Recovery Furnace was operating beyond safe limits in an attempt to keep the mine operations. This was done in order to convince the public that everything is rosy now that government has taken over the mine. When we asked where the money was coming from to keep KCM afloat, they said the company had (suddenly) started making profit. How?

You can fool people, but you cannot fool the machines. If people are taking this fire incident casually, many lives will be lost next time. What is happening at KCM now may appear like none of anyone’s business, but a time will come when every taxpayer will be forced to pay for the damage being done to the mine.

Already, we can see that close to 13,000 employees at KCM are drawing salaries when the mine is not fully operational. How is this possible? No one is in a position to explain where this money is coming from. Someone somewhere up the political ladder is trying to create a good impression on the state of affairs at the mine using very unsustainable means. We will pay heavily for this!