In the Midst of Two Major Encroachments, ArcelorMittal Remains Firm on Lasting Interest in Liberia
Monrovia – Scott Lowe is unfazed about ArcelorMittal’s future in Liberia. The journeyman Chief Operating Officer of the steel giant in Liberia is confident that despite the encroachment on its concession area in Yekepa, Nimba County, the company will weather the latest storm threatening its fourteen-year run in the country.
Report by Rodney D. Sieh, [email protected]
Solway Mining Inc., has been raising eyebrows of late, since a controversial ceremony in July when Emmanuel Sherman, Deputy Minister of Mines & Energy, introduced the company to the people of Nimba County and to the President of their traditional chiefs, Peter Barlon.
ArcelorMittal, in a communication dated June 26, 2020, directly confronted Solway Mining Inc. informing them of the alleged encroachment on their concession area.
In the communication, titled “Unlawful entry and exploration activities in ArcelorMittal Liberia’s concession area”, ArcelorMittal stated:
“For and on behalf of ArcelorMittal Liberia Ltd. (“AML”), please be informed that Solway Mining Inc. (“Solway Mining”) has unlawfully entered upon and engaged in exploration activities in an area overlapping the concession area in Nimba County granted by the Government of Liberia (the “Government”) to AML pursuant to the Mineral Development Agreement dated August 17, 2005, as amended (“the AML MDA”).” The communication was signed by Mr. Scott Lowe, the General Manager.
Addressing the issue in an exclusive interview with FrontPageAfrica, Mr. Lowe said the company is continuing discussions with the government on the Solway issue.
Weighing in on the Solway Overlap
Says Lowe: “The Solway overlap was granted outside of our mining area – it’s not in our mining area but it is within our concession – and we’re obviously concerned about that but there’s ongoing dialogue with the government to address it. So, I’m very confident that at the senior level of government, there is support for ArcelorMittal and a recognition that ArcelorMittal has played a very important part in Liberia for the last fourteen years and there is a lot of support, overwhelming support from the highest level of government for ArcelorMittal to play in the future. As I said, I came to Liberia with the aim of operating existing mines but also making a bigger part of expanding for the future, a bigger and brighter future and part of that is that partnership with government is critical – and no one can say that there is some serious threat to the concession that would underpin ArcelorMittal’s long-term future.”
Mr. Lowe insists that he’s hopeful of the matter being resolved. “I’m hopeful that it would be resolved. Good faith and discussions with government, I am hopeful of a solution.”
In addition to Solway, ArcelorMittal has also been engulfed in another encroachment of another one of its concession area at the Port of Buchanan which has also been encroached on with the ‘endorsement’ of the Government of Liberia through a deal with Prista Port.
As a result, the company in December 2019, threatened to halt phase two of its investment in Liberia over the Prista Oil Holding deal. The company is the mother company of Prista Port Buchanan LLC, a Liberian business entity, which was established by the European multinational company Prista Oil Holding EAD, in order to facilitate the recently concluded Concession Agreement with the Government of Liberia for the Port of Buchanan.
By virtue of the Concession Agreement dated 14th August 2019, approved by President Weah on September 12, 2019, and ratified by the Senate with Act No41 on September 30, 2019, Prista is expected to manage the Port of Buchanan for 25 years. They are set to invest a whopping US$277 million in the Liberian economy.
The Prista Port Debacle
In a letter to the Minister of State, Nathaniel McGill, the Chief Executive Officer of ArcelorMittal Liberia Scott Lowe expressed the company’s “objection to a concession agreement entered into by the National Port of Authority (representing the Government of Liberia) and Prista Port Buchanan LLC on grounds that it includes and overlaps a majority of the current concession area of ArcelorMittal Liberia in Buchanan, Grand Bassa County”.
For Lowe, the Prista issue is one of continued engagement. “We’re engaging the government quite regularly on a wide range of issues which includes that concession. First of all we have no objection to economic development that is neighboring to our operation and doesn’t negatively impact our pristine business or our exciting plans for the future- we have no objections and we welcome that but of course we want to make sure that our concession is impacting in a way that that will not impede our current operation or have a negative impact on our plans for the future. So, in all of our engagements with the government, I’ve found that there is overwhelming support for that. We haven’t agreed to reduce our concession or to change the terms of that concession to the extent that anybody – Prista Port or anybody else agrees with the government to establish a concession outside of ArcelorMittal area, we welcome that, as long as it protects our existing concession and our terms and conditions.”
“ArcelorMittal is here for the long-term future. We are committed, our fourteen-year history demonstrate that and we are wholesomely committed for the long term, we’re here for the long term in Liberia and there’s tremendous goodwill on all sides to create that positive future – and we’ve really been a part of Liberia’s past in the last fourteen years – and we see great potential to be even bigger partners in the future – and I mean that most sincerely.”– Scott Lowe, Chief Executive Officer ArcelorMittal Liberia
Hazard Pay, Union Issues
Besides the encroachment issues, AML has also been compounded by recurring issues with the workers union over hazard pay and working conditions.
In July 2014, workers staged an attack on the company’s facilities in Nimba County, leaving several police officers wounded, the holding of employees and contractors – national and expatriates – hostage for up to 20 hours, and millions of dollars worth of property looted and destroyed.
Over the past few weeks, the company has been engulfed in on-and-off issues with the Union members who say, local staffs are retired with no benefits or retirement packages even after working for the company for years or having reached retirement age of 65.
Additionally, in recent weeks, members of the union have been staging silent protests by wearing stickers on their helmets and working clothes demanding payment of hazard allowance as their colleagues have received. Several union members say, the management has turned a blind eye to the demands of the union and silent protests.
Mr. Lowe acknowledges that there have been problems but says AML is continuously engaging the union in finding a lasting solution to the issues as they arise. “ArcelorMittal has been here for fourteen years and we’ve had a positive and constructive relationship with the union – that’s not to say there haven’t been differences and differences do occur from time to time. Even in the closest of families, there can be differences but the key thing is how those differences are resolved through mutual respect and settling those differences.”
Mr. Lowe says he met with representatives of the union last week – and there are issues both sides are working on resolving right now. “So, I’m very confident there will be a positive, long-term relationship with the union, and we will resolve these current differences.”
Regarding the issue of workers health and welfare, in particular the case of Stephen Nahn, an employee who suffered an accident on the job when his arm got caught in a rock-crushing machine, Mr. Lowe says the general issue of safety is of primary concern for AML. “Haven’t worked for so long in the mining industry and seeing vast improvements in safety records, ArcelorMittal can be very proud of the work that’s been done to improve safety. When I was a young man – in the 1980s, injuries would happen very regularly, painfully now, they’re very rare. But with a lot of hard work it’s very hard to have such injuries but it takes constant attention and we want to get to the point where there’s zero injuries – and a lot of hard work’s gone into that. And in the case that you mentioned, where there are serious injuries, which thankfully are are very rare, the company does adhere to country standards and regulations. I don’t want to comment too much on that particular case because I’m still looking into it and it predates my experience with the company but we’re looking into that. There have been some work done to assist him at the time but what can be done now is what we are looking at.”
Eye on the Future
Pressed whether the company plans to revisit Nahn’s issue in the near future, Mr. Lowe said: “I haven’t met him and I wasn’t sure how it was managed at the time but I’m going to look at it right now.”
In 2005, AML signed its first Mineral Development Agreement (MDA) to allow the company to begin mining operations in Yekepa, Nimba county and Buchanan, Grand Bassa county concessions. This agreement was then renegotiated and amended in 2006.
The MDA carries stringent conditions regarding sustainable development and economic, social and environmental investment. Its aim is to ensure that, while foreign companies are able to generate a profit from their investment in the extraction of Liberia’s resources, the country and its citizens benefit as well.
Among other things, it stipulates that ArcelorMittal contribute $3 million a year to the county social development fund for Nimba, Bong and Grand Bassa Counties. This money, which over the 25-year expected life-of-mine will total $75 million, will be used to drive community development projects that will uplift and improve the lives of local people. The agreement also includes commitments to infrastructure development, environmental protection (the dam above is an example of this) and an overall guiding principle of uplifting Liberia and her people.
The company is also required to establish and maintain medical and education facilities in areas of operation, to serve employees, their families and the broader community and to prioritize the employment and development of local Liberians.
For Lowe, in the fourteen years since the signing of the MDA, Mittal has continued to set its sights on the long term. “I don’t have any concerns about the long-term future here for ArcelorMittal. I see a very bright future, I’m really optimistic. We look briefly back to fourteen years, ArcelorMittal has demonstrated with Liberia through good times and bad – and even through tough times when some other companies abandoned the country, ArcelorMittal stayed here.”
Amid periods of uncertainty, Lowe acknowledges past and potential future hiccups will keep AML’s head above water. “I’d say that ArcelorMittal has had a good history in Liberia, there have been problems in the past, but those problems have been resolved. There will no doubt be problems and differences in the future but I really admire the way in which the parties have respected and resolved those issues.”