First case of COVID-19 at Cigar Lake uranium mine

Two miners walking through the Cigar Lake mines, one of the only operational facilities Cameco still runs. (Courtesy Cameco)

Cigar Lake uranium mine in northern Saskatchewan confirmed its first positive case of COVID-19 over the weekend. An employee tested positive for the virus on Saturday, and has been in isolation at the mine since November 22.

“This is the first positive COVID case we have experienced at Cigar Lake. Contact tracing for the individual was completed through the Northern Population Health Unit,” Cameco spokesperson Jeff Hryhoriw told the Prince Albert Daily Herald on Monday.

 “Cigar Lake continues to operate safely, and we are monitoring the situation very closely.  We recognize developments around the pandemic are fluid, and will move quickly to adjust our plans should circumstances warrant.”

 Hryhoriw said that Cameco has maintained steady communication with employees throughout the pandemic and since the positive case was confirmed, to keep everyone well-informed. 

“The health and safety of our workers, their families and communities is Cameco’s top priority, and that certainly isn’t changing,” Hryhoriw said.

 A Cameco employee who works underground on the production team at Cigar Lake, was informed of the positive case by the company. He said he hadn’t heard of anyone else experiencing symptoms since.

 “We do have one case here. I think the individual flew in about a week ago. The health and safety team on site had isolated that individual into a separate wing that they opened up for people with potential symptoms,” the employee told the Prince Albert Daily Herald on Sunday. 

 “We have an abundance of masks, hand sanitizers and disinfectants. There are stations set up throughout the whole mine site. Cleaning staff is constantly wiping tables, chairs and doing all they can do to help keep us safe and protected here on site. Masks are required boarding the plane and everywhere we go throughout this whole mine site.”

 Cameco’s Cigar Lake mine reopened in September along with partner Orano Canada’s McClean Lake mill, where uranium from Cigar Lake is processed. 

McClean Lake saw its first case of the virus on Sept. 20 not long after restarting production.

 “It’s a difficult situation, but our employees are handling this calmly and with the common good in mind,” said Jim Corman, President and CEO of Orano Canada.

 “We will get through this challenge, with lessons learned, and it’s a good reminder of why COVID safety protocols must be respected.”

Cross-contamination between the two operations has not been identified as an issue and no further cases have been announced at McClean Lake.

 The mine and mill had temporarily stopped producing uranium in March in order to mitigate risks associated with employees living in close quarters while flying in and out of vulnerable communities during the pandemic.

 Roughly 50 per cent of 320 employees and another 240 contractors at Cigar Lake are from communities in northern Saskatchewan

“These realities would greatly compound the problems a COVID-19 outbreak would present, so we need to take every precaution to ensure we don’t inadvertently become a point of transmission into these communities,” Hryhoriw said in March.

 The active workforce at Cigar Lake dropped to 75 during the closure and was reduced from 160 to 50 at McClean Lake. Meanwhile uranium stocks climbed globally because of the halt in production. 

“While health and safety are the primary considerations for the timing of our Cigar Lake mine restart decision, there were also commercial considerations, including market-related factors and the impact on our cost structure,” Cameco president and CEO Tim Gitzel said in July, announcing plans to reopen.

The mining giant reported a third quarter adjusted net loss of $78-million in November.

“As expected, our results continue to be impacted by the pro-active operational decisions taken earlier this year,” Gitzel said.

“We believe that the actions we have taken to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus are prudent and reflect our values – placing priority on the health and safety of our employees, their families and their communities. However, our decisions do come with near-term costs.”

So far Hryhoriw said two others at Cigar Lake were found to be close contacts of the positive case.  Both tested negative as of Tuesday morning.

 “We are following our Exposure Control Plan to prevent the risk of spread of infection to other personnel at Cigar Lake.  This includes isolating the individual with a positive diagnosis in the designated isolation wing of the camp until public health authorities advise they can be released,” Hryhoriw said.

 “We also continue to follow the significant measures already in place at site, including screening for our inbound and outbound flights, and heightened controls on food service. We continue to stay in close contact with public health authorities and follow all government guidelines in order to limit the risk posed by COVID-19 across our facilities.”

The employee who spoke to the Herald said that workers are being diligent to prevent the spread of the virus.

“It’s up to the individuals here on site just to do their due diligence and to continue working together to make sure that we don’t experience an outbreak,” he said.