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Chile lithium miners feel heat from exploding coronavirus outbreak, output steady

Dave Sherwood

By Dave Sherwood

SANTIAGO, June 17 (Reuters) - Chile´s vaunted lithium industry, the world´s second largest, has begun to feel the impact of a runaway coronavirus outbreak nationwide, though top producers SQM and Albemarle said output from their Atacama operations nonetheless remained unscathed.

Albemarle, the world´s No.1 miner of the ultralight battery metal, told Reuters in an email Wednesday it planned to immediately shut down its Atacama potash plant for 15 working days in order to comply with restrictions requiring miners cut back staff.

"This measure meets our objective of reducing staffing levels by 24 people (10% of our total staff)...amid a rise in infections across the country," the company said.

The U.S.-based miner said the decision would not impact its production of lithium, a vital ingredient in the batteries that power electric vehicles.

Albemarle told Reuters a total of 17 of its Chile-based workers and contractors had been infected with the virus, including 14 who work on the salt flat. Only three cases remained active, Albemarle said.

Top competitor SQM, the world´s No. 2 lithium miner, told Reuters in an email Wednesday that one of its workers had died earlier this week from COVID-19. The company did not respond to a request for a tally of how many workers had been infected by the coronavirus.

SQM said it too had reduced staffing levels, but that exports remained unscathed.

"We have been able to fulfill all of our export (orders)," the company said.

Chile, a South American mining powerhouse and the top global producer of copper, has seen cases of COVID-19 explode in June, averaging more than 5,000 daily. Health officials on Wednesday reported 220,628 total cases of coronavirus and 3,615 deaths. (Reporting by Dave Sherwood; Editing by Andrea Ricci)