Copper mining at Uganda’s Kilembe mines will resume later this year after a Chinese concessionaire completes its rehabilitation.
The bulk of the work on refurbishment of the machinery, which has been in disuse for more than three decades, is complete and production of copper concentrate will begin in May.
Copper smelting will follow three months later after metallurgical testing and installation of a small-scale smelter, according to Alex Kwatampora, project manager of the concessionaire, Tibet Hima Industry Company Ltd.
“We are resuming production of concentrated copper to a purity of 28 per cent. We will then stockpile it as we look at setting up a small smelter unit to refine it close to 100 per cent between August and the end of the year,” Mr Kwatampora added.
The metallurgical tests are intended to establish the quality of the copper and associated products that can be produced in country. The concession agreement requires them to export only finished copper products such as electrical conductors.
Unlike the past when the concentrate was transported to a refinery in Jinja, more than 400km northeast of Kasese, the new smelting operations will take place in Kasese because the smaller scale and availability of electricity allow that.
The ultimate production target is 5,000 tonnes daily, but initial production will start at 1,500 tonnes, then double in 2016.
Tibet Hima, which has committed $175 million to the project, is also in talks with the government to acquire Kasese Cobalt Company Ltd, a firm established in 1992 to recover cobalt metals from an unstable stockpile of a cobalt-rich sulphide concentrate, and see if one of the units could be converted to smelt copper and other metals.
KCCL, said to be the only cobalt bioleaching plant in the world, was meant to remove the threat of acid water runoff and contamination of Lake George and Queen Elizabeth National Park from the mining areas, but ceased production although the bacteria used in the process are still in store.
The refurbishment of the machinery and the rehabilitation of major roads linking various mining areas in Kilembe started in August last year.
Mr Kwatampora said the firm has also completed work on geological mapping, geochemical surveys and is currently working on geophysical surveys to ascertain the quality and quantity of minerals in the area.
“The purpose of exploration is to expand the existing ore reserves to ensure that there is sustainability of the mining activity for the next 25 years,” Mr Kwatampora said.
Located 370km west of Kampala on the foot of the Rwenzori mountains, the Kilembe mines were closed in 1982 following a drop in prices for copper in the global markets. Prices have however bounced back, averaging $7,000 per tonne, driven mainly by demand from China.
According to the Uganda Investment Authority, Kilembe had 4.17 million tonnes of reserves, with a copper content of 1.77 per cent, and opportunities to discover additional resources in the vicinity of the mine.
There are 5.5 million tonnes of cobalt in tailings (dumped material from previous mining) at an average grade 0.114 per cent cobalt.